South Africa’s wetlands are in urgent need of rescue

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Globally, wetlands make a vital contribution to people’s well-being and economic growth by supporting more than one billion people through activities such as farming, fishing, tourism and water provision. Moreover, they also act as natural sponges that store water, releasing it slowly over time. Several studies have suggested that 35% to 60% of South Africa’s wetlands have already been lost or severely degraded.

According to Dr Simon Lorentz from SRK Consulting, “South Africa faces a general challenge with regard to water supply, as our growing needs outstrip the capacity of our storage facilities to deliver. Climate change aggravates this situation by adding other dimensions, possibly including longer dry periods for certain areas, accompanied by heavier downpours”. He highlights that there is an urgent need for wetlands to be rehabilitated and preserved as wetlands are significant for both the surface water and groundwater components of the water resource. The National Biodiversity Assessment conducted in 2011, revealed that 65% of South African wetland types are under threat, with 48% critically endangered, 12% endangered and 5% vulnerable.

In aid to solve the problem of water dehydration in our wetlands, WWF Mondi Wetlands Programme has been working to conserve South African wetlands for 25 years concentrating on the physical destruction and rehabilitation of wetlands and the root of the cause. According to WWF‑MWP Manager Dr David Lindley “Ten years ago hardly anybody knew what a wetland was, let alone the importance of wetlands in our lives. Now it has become one of the hottest environmental issues, with the government willing to support conservation efforts”. However, wetland hydrology expert Dr Lorentz still argues that he that we need far greater attention on how these diminishing areas should be protected.

“In a recent project, SRK Consulting has been suggesting remedial action on wetlands which have begun drying out. Without sufficient moisture in the peat soil of the wetland area, the ground has begun to burn frequently, possibly due to the veld fires in the area says, Dr Lorentz. In the past, he says, we have relied almost entirely on engineered solutions such as dams, reservoirs and canals to control the path of the water to meet social needs. A set of recent techniques are applied to the understanding and quantification of wetland water flows. These include the use of hydropedology surveys, stable isotopes sampling, hydrometry and near-surface geophysics, together with two- and three-dimensional soil water modelling. Dr Lorentz also highlights the importance of wetlands in the context of water shortages and mentions that the soil acts as a reservoir. Global water expert Sandra Postel points out in her recent book Replenish that the world’s soils are capable of holding eight times as much water as all the rivers combined.

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