World Wetlands Day 2017
The National Biodiversity Assessment (2011), indicates that wetlands make up only 2.4% of South Africa’s surface area and yet this relatively small area provide a disproportionately high value of ecological infrastructure, providing critical ecosystem services such as water purification and flood regulation. However, wetlands are the most threatened of all South Africa’s ecosystems, with 48% of wetland ecosystem types critically endangered. Only 11% of wetland ecosystem types are well protected, and 71% are not protected at all, which means that wetland ecosystems have not been taken systematically into account in establishing and expanding land-based protected areas.
Given their strategic importance for ensuring improved water quality and regulating water supplies, investments in conserving, managing and restoring wetlands are likely to generate large returns. Many wetlands that are in poor condition can be rehabilitated to at least a basic level of ecological and hydrological functioning, thus restoring ecosystem services.
South Africa is one of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention). South Africa signed the Ramsar Convention in 1971 at its inception and the membership was formalised in 1975 when South Africa ratified the Convention and became the fifth contracting party. One of the obligations of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention is to commemorate the World Wetlands Day (WWD).
The WWD is celebrated annually on 2 February. This day marks the adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance on 2 February 1971. On this day, people around the world, including government departments, non-governmental organisations, civil society at large and academia, come together to celebrate WWD with the aim of creating and raising public awareness on the value of wetlands and its vital link to human well-being.
The 2017 theme for WWD as communicated by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands Secretariat is: “Wetlands for disaster risk reduction”. This has been selected to demonstrate the impact of natural disasters on natural ecosystems. The objective of this theme is to raise awareness and to highlight the vital roles of healthy wetlands in reducing the impacts of extreme events such as floods, droughts and cyclones on communities, and in helping to build resilience.
This came at an opportune time where South Africa is currently experiencing drought and recent floods of which Gauteng Province was the most affected. The 2017 WWD will therefore demonstrate the benefits of wetlands in particular the provision of ecosystem services such as water and their resilience to drought and flood events.
In addition, the theme for 2017 WWD commemoration is also in line with the adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) particularly Goal 13.1 which states the need for “strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries” and its goal 13.3 which calls Parties to “improve education, awareness-raising, human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning”.
Therefore, this is a timely opportunity for South Africa to demonstrate the role of wetlands in achieving these goals through disaster risk reduction in events such as floods and the impacts of drought. In addition, the theme is also aligned to Goal 14 of the Ramsar Convention Strategic Plan for 2016 to 2024, which further outlines “the importance of restoring degraded wetlands for biodiversity conservation, disaster risk reduction, livelihoods and/or climate change mitigation and adaptation measures”.
At a global level, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) indicated that inland and coastal wetland ecosystems are being lost at a rate faster than that of any other ecosystem, and that the trend towards loss of wetlands resources has not been reversed since. The primary indirect drivers of this degradation and loss are identified as population growth and change in economic activity while the primary direct drivers of degradation and loss are identified as infrastructure development, land conversion, water use, eutrophication and pollution, overharvesting, overexploitation of wetland resources, climate change and invasive alien species.
The largest changes in loss of wetlands continue to be from unsustainable agriculture practices, forestry and extractive industries, especially oil, gas and mining, the impacts of population growth (including migration and urbanization) and changes in land use that override environmental considerations. Addressing and engaging the drivers behind these pressures on wetlands is a condition for limiting, adapting to, and mitigating their impacts. Realization of this fact and its consideration in planning and decision-making requires that wetland resources and wetland ecosystem benefits are measured, valued and understood widely within societies.
South Africa is a water scarce country, and the water in many streams is polluted. Both droughts and floods are common. In this regards, wetlands play a vital role by removing toxic substances and sediment from water, while also improving downstream water quality and the overall health of communities.
Wetlands are able to reduce the severity of droughts and floods by regulating stream flow. They also help to purify water and provide habitat for many different plants and animals. Besides these indirect benefits to society, wetlands provide many direct benefits in the form of resources such as fibre for making crafts as well as recreational opportunities. However lack of community awareness on the value and benefits of wetlands often leads to their transformation by humans.
Wetlands also produce goods that have a significant economic value such as clean water, fisheries, timber, peat, wildlife resources and tourism opportunities. The loss and degradation of wetlands is driven by several factors. Important wetlandfunctions include water storage, groundwater recharge, storm protection, flood mitigation, shoreline stabilization, erosion control, and retention of carbon, nutrients, sediments and pollutants. Increased demand for agricultural land associated with population growth continues to be a significant cause of wetland loss in some parts of the world.
Statistics indicate that the costs of loss of freshwater wetlands worldwide from 1997 to 2011 has been valued at US$2.7 trillion per year, while the costs of loss of tidal marshes or mangroves has been estimated at US$7.2 trillion per year and the loss of coral reefs has been estimated at US$11.9 trillion. Wetlands continue to face severe pressures, despite many benefits they provide to people. These pressures arise from major economic drivers and hence there is a need to mainstream ecosystem services into economic decisions.
For example, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) concluded that many water resource developments that have been undertaken to increase access to water have not given adequate consideration to harmful trade-offs with other services provided by wetlands. An increased appreciation of the values to society of water related ecosystem services from nature and the wider range of ecosystem services from wetlands in particular, will be essential to catalyse an appropriate policy and business response.
This year, South Africa, through the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) will celebrate 2017 WWD jointly with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) and Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality(EMM) at Esselen Park, located in Tembisa in Gauteng Province.
The event will focus on raising public awareness on direct and indirect benefits of wetlands in particular the role that they play in disaster risk reduction, and their benefits to humanity, and also encouraging the participation of local communities in promoting the wise use of wetlands for their long term sustainability.
Wetland to be showcased during the 2017 WWD
The Esselen Park Pan is a naturally occurring body of water located in Tembisa, in the north western region of Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality. The pan is in the catchment of the Kaalspruit and the land directly adjacent to the pan (shores) is an open land, but further away and surrounding the area of the dam there is a large high density residential area.
The pan is estimated to be at a full level and the approximate size of the surface water of the dam is 15ha. Reeds inhabit the shores of the dam, and various species of bird are noticed at the pan. The surrounding commuters utilise the pan for different purposes, but there is a need to promote wise use of the wetland and raise awareness in terms of waste management and water use.