Wetlands conservation in South Africa

All the natural habitats and ecosystem have their own unique importance and serve a specific role towards the maintenance of the environment at large- be it forests, marine ecosystem or wetlands. Wetlands are an essential component of the natural world order. What qualifies to be wetlands are areas of land where water covers the soil either all year long or just limit itself to certain times of the year. The natural environment manifests wetlands in various forms; be it swamps, marshes, billabongs, lakes, lagoons, saltmarshes, mudflats, mangroves, coral reefs, bogs, fens, or peatlands. With the esteemed importance attached to wetlands for their benefits, several nations tend to create artificial ones too, apart from natural wetlands. The nature of water in wetlands varies with purpose. It could be static or flowing, fresh, saline or even brackish.

Wetlands serve several purposes that aid not just the animals and plants inhabiting it, but also extend the beneficial domain to protect the human settlements by guarding the shores against wave action, reducing the impacts of floods, absorbing pollutants and improving the quality of water. The ecological diversity of wetlands positions it in the top-notch list of priorities of the nations for conservation and protection. The Non-Aligned Movement has iterated its commitment to environment protection and sustainable development.

South Africa, being an important NAM Member State, has vehemently adhered to its principles both in words and in actions. Wetlands form a very important aspect of South Africa’s natural geography and act as an asset providing the nation with a variety of natural resources and services that enhance the economy and environment of the nation. South Africa, home to several important wetlands in recent times, witnessed a depletion in is natural health and number, thus pressurising the nation to take quick and active steps of conservation.

The importance of wetlands was not something actively realized across the globe including South Africa from the very start. It was only after the 1970s that the ecological and economic advantages of wetlands came under notice. With an attempt to make the wetlands more useful for human civilization, incentives were provided to farmers to convert the wetlands into Agri-lands that resulted in alteration of the South African landscape. The 2011 National Biodiversity Assessment reveals that 65% of South Africa’s wetland types are under threat (48% critically endangered, 12% endangered and 5% vulnerable). Only 11% of wetland ecosystem types are well protected, with 71% not protected at all. South Africa has taken several steps to enhance the productivity of its limited wetlands and channel its resources for useful purposes.

The first ever substantial legal step taken by South Africa in the direction of wetlands protection was the 1984 Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act that remains in action till date guiding the legal framework. South Africa in lieu with the ideals of Non-Aligned Movement has realized that substantiality is a key factor for the progress of any nation and it depends on co-operation and co-ordination from government, non-government, national and international organizations.

The National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 (NEMA), the National Water Act 36 of 1998 (NWA) and the environmental provisions of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) ensure that urban and commercial developments do not affect or alter the natural state of wetlands.

Another fundamental and important step taken by South Africa in the strenuous efforts to bring their wetlands in the realm of protection was the establishment of a national wetland rehabilitation programme, under the banner of “Working for Wetlands” in 2002. The pivotal decision was an amalgamation and convergence of important objectives to be achieved in environmental, biodiversity, water and agriculture policies, and capitalised on the acknowledgement of the fact that wetland degradation is not necessarily perpetual, and that it is possible to restore some ecosystem services through rehabilitation. “Working for Wetlands” is a joint initiative of the Departments of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Water and Sanitation (DWS) formerly known as Water Affairs (DWA) and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).

Not just government initiatives, but even non-governmental organisations in South Africa have taken several steps to ensure that the ecology of the nation is maintained and does not slip off the conservational slope. The non-governmental “Mondi Wetlands Project” recognised that the labour-intensive model pioneered by “Working for Water” would be equally suited to the activities involved in rehabilitating wetlands, and petitioned the government to begin experimenting in this direction to incorporate it with the umbrella project of “Working for Wetlands”.

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