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Working for Wetlands, Changing Lives

31 October 2006

by Conride Mhlari

Working for Wetlands is an Extended Public Works Program (EPWP) funded by Department of Environmental Affairs And Tourism (DEAT) through South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) aimed at wetlands rehabilitation and restoration. Central to the program is job creation, entrepreneurial skills development, training and social up-liftment. The criteria to access funding is through submissions of rehabilitation plans and project implementation plan respectively, however wetlands experts within the area of works will conduct an assessment prior to the approval of funding.

What is a wetland?

The Ramsar convention gave the following definition for wetlands- “wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres.”

According to the South African Water Act a wetland is “land which is transitional 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, and which land in normal circumstances supports or would support vegetation typically adapted to life in saturated soil”.

This definition allows us to conclude that there are three indicators, which allow us to decide whether a piece of land is a wetland, or not:

• A high water table

• Hydromorphic soils

• Hydrophytic plants living in these soils

Most people perceive wetlands as muddy places, infested with diseases and mosquitoes and disregard them; however, conservationists believe that wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems, supporting enormous quantities of unique plants and animals. Wetlands include swamps, marshes and floodplains; they not only purify water, but also serve as flood barriers and provide a home and food for many plants and animals. Wetlands play an important role in flood attenuation, slowing down the movement of water, while at the same time acting as a sponge, reducing floods and prolonging stream flow periods. Indigenous and expert knowledge plays a pivotal role in wetlands identification, therefore consultations with both sources of knowledge is critical to wetland management.

Wetland destruction

The worst damage anyone can inflict on a wetland is to drain it for the production of pastures and crops. Other insults to wetlands include overgrazing, excessive cattle trampling and the wrong burning regime. Mismanagement of a wetland often results in erosion, especially in the form of head-cuts (this is a type of erosion that eats uphill towards the flow of water, leaving a huge gully behind it). Channels and head-cuts essentially drain the wetland, dry it out and ultimately destroy it. This erosion negatively impacts on the integrity of wetland health.

Wetland rehabilitation in SANParks

Wetlands rehabilitation activities are currently happening in Agulhas, Golden Gate, KNP and Mountain Zebra, creating job opportunities for the previous marginalized communities. The program currently employ 150 people of which the majority are women, contracted to emerging local entrepreneurs. Local SMMEs are sourced to provide transport and various services to the projects, thereby supporting the local communities adjacent to Parks.

Many National Parks, have wetlands within their boundaries and although these wetlands are relatively pristine due to conservation efforts, however external factors such as flooding, roads and poor infrastructure planning are negatively impacting wetland biodiversity. ISCU in partnership with SANBI is currently engaged in a process of training Park Management Staff in wetland identification courses in order to create wetland inventory for SANParks; this process will assist in understanding wetlands functioning, rehabilitation measures and also guide the process in terms of funding priorities within different Parks that require wetland rehabilitation activities.

For more information please contact the ISCU, Unit Coordinator Olga Jacobs or Wetlands and Coast Care Implementation Manager, Conride Mhlari on 012 426 5100 / 426 5045