Saving our land: the importance of wetlands

A wetland, whether smaller than a hectare or covering a vast area, is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. We urgently need to conserve them.

Saving our land: the importance of wetlands
Rietvlei wetland reserve.
Photo: Abu Shawka

According to the National Water Act of 1998, a wetland lies between “terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface, or the land is periodically covered with shallow water”.

It supports “vegetation typically adapted to life in saturated soil”. Wetland types include springs, mires, bogs, floodplains, vleis, estuaries and mangrove swamps.

A wetland improves water quality, helps control erosion and floods, stores water, regulates stream flow, and helps maintain biodiversity.

In drier months, groundwater is the only source of water for many ecosystems. This makes wetlands essential in an arid country such as South Africa.

However, an estimated 50% of our wetlands have been destroyed due to dam building, incorrect burning, overgrazing, invasive alien species, and the drainage of wetlands for agricultural cultivation or urban development.

Working for Wetlands (WfW)is a joint initiative of three government departments: Environmental Affairs, Water and Sanitation, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

WfW has learnt many lessons during the course of rehabilitating hundreds of wetlands.

One of the most significant of these is that landowners and wetland users need to take ownership of and engage with the rehabilitation process for it to be successful and sustainable.

This is in line with the ‘wise use of wetlands’ concept derived from the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (South Africa was the fifth contracting party in 1975).

According to Ramsar, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to saving wetlands, but the following practices have been shown to be effective:

  • Integrate local stakeholders
    People who occupy, own, govern, or rely on a wetland have a natural interest in it. Involve them from the start and take their needs into account. For its rehabilitation projects, WfW trains community researchers and monitors to undertake research and monitoring and act as mediators between the community and WfW. These people are formally employed and paid in line with the prescripts of the Expanded Public Works Programme.
  • Carry out a wetlands inventory and impact assessment
    Note the extent and type of the wetland, its biodiversity (which species are present, how abundant they are, and whether they are threatened), the other services it provides, and who relies on it. Evaluate the likely impact of a range of possible activities for the site.
  • Create a wise-use plan
    Map out how the site can be used to ensure its long-term viability. This plan could:
    – Set out the activities that could take place in specific zones and at specific times;
    – Enable hunting and fishing at natural population replacement levels;
    – Establish how the site’s water is sourced, how groundwater is affected, and outline a suitable water management approach;
    – Set out a way of educating the local community on the importance of the wetland, and building people’s capacity to get involved in site activities;
    – Consider the eco-tourism potential and how a visitor centre might support this.
  • Create an authority to implement the plan
    Specify who has the power to implement the plan, and ensure that all stakeholders are clear on this.
  • Monitor any changes on the site
    Conduct regular observations and monitoring as laid out in the plan.

    Sources: King, N, Beyers, B, et al. 2005. ‘Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health’ (research paper produced for the SA Environment Outlook report). Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. ‘Wetlands: wise use basics on site’.