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Minister Edna Molewa welcomes judgment in a matter between Isimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and the Umfolozi Sugar Planters (UCOSP)

25 May 2016

 

The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Mrs. Edna Molewa has welcomed the judgment handed down by the Durban High Court in the matter between iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and the uMfolozi Sugar Planters (UCOSP) and Others.

On 20 May 2016, Judge Mohini Moodley dismissed an application by UCOSP and two farmers against the ISimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and the Departments of Environmental Affairs, Water and Sanitation, Rural Development and Land Reform, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).

The matter relates to the draining of floodwaters and its effects on land under sugarcane on the uMfolozi floodplain.

The UCOSP and two farmers brought the application in August 2015 to compel iSimangaliso to artificially breach the uMfolozi River mouth to the sea, to enable the farmers to drain their drainage system into the sea and reduce the impacts of periodic flooding on certain low-lying farms.

The UCOSP and the two farmers in their founding affidavits further argued that they had a water right or entitlement to a water use in terms of the National Water Act. As a result of farming activities in the floodplain and its conversion from a floodplain to agricultural land, the course of the uMfolozi River was changed through the construction of drainage canals.

The farmers argued in their court papers that repeated back-flooding cost millions of rands in damage to crops. The farms in question comprise less than 1% of the 9127ha under sugarcane on the UMfolozi floodplain.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority argued that breaching the estuary for sugar cane farmers would have dire consequences for the area's residents, as thousands of litres of fresh water would be lost to the Lake St. Lucia system.

This was of particular concern in the face of the devastating drought gripping the province. In 2015 the lowest rainfall year since 1920 was recorded. As far back as 1967, drought conditions demonstrated that the policy of keeping the St. Lucia estuary mouth open permanently or through breaching of the uMfolozi River was an 'unstainable environmental practice with devastating biodiversity impacts on the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

For example, between 12 and 14 March 2016 some 6.2 billion litres of fresh water entered the Lake St Lucia system, following rains both in the catchment and locally. This amounts to an average of 2.5 billion litres per day and provided an important buffer against the possibility of continued low rainfall.

The nearly 15 000 rural households in the area are entirely dependant on fresh water in the main lake. These same households also rely on Lake St. Lucia and the sustainability of the Tugela Banks prawn industry as a source of livelihood.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority is the conservation authority of Lake St Lucia, which is the world's oldest protected estuary, supporting high levels of biodiversity and threatened and protected species.

 
 
 

The uMfolozi River accounts for 60% of the estuary's fresh water, and by disrupting the river's natural processes through an artificial breach, residents would be left without running water.

An interim settlement was reached in October 2015 which required iSimangaliso to breach the mouth at a point of its choosing within 24 hours when the water levels reach trigger cotcane levels of 1.2gmsl. The interim court settlement remained in place until May 2016.

Despite iSimangaliso complying with the interim settlement, in December 2015 and March 2016 the applicants launched two further urgent applications for alleged non-compliance. The court action was launched despite the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority implementing a management strategy for the estuary that had been developed after consultation with UCOSP. These consultations and discussions began in 2008.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority further argued that despite repeated attempts to impress upon UCOSP the implications of farming on land located in the tidal zone in the face of climate change, UCOSP had failed to deliver on its promises to improve its flood protection measures.

In handing down judgement last week, Judge Moodley concluded that the interim relief had run its course and dismissed the main application together with the two others. The judge noted that given the gravity of the situation, it was in the interests of justice and both parties that the judgment should be issued immediately. The full judgment and costs order will be delivered in due course.

Minister Molewa has concured with Judge Moodley, noting that prolonged legal action was adversely affecting not just the affected communities, but the estuary and entire coastal environment.

"The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a jewel in South Africa's conservation crown, and the consequences of this judgement are far-reaching..we are ever mindful of the need to balance environmental protection with ensuring that lives and livelihoods are not unduly affected by any measures under implementation."

"The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) is confident that justice has been served, and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure that the delicate ecosystems at iSimangaliso are protected," adds Minister Molewa.

For media queries, contact

Albi Modise
Cell: 083 490 2871

About Isimangaliso Wetland Park

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 had has been a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance since 1986.

More than 50% of all water birds in KwaZulu-Natal feed, roost and nest in the estuary. Of the 155 fish species that have been recorded in the Lake St Lucia estuarine system, 71 species use St Lucia as a nursery area and at least 24 of these are important in marine line fisheries.

Harvests of raw materials, particularly estuarine sedges, is estimated to be worth around R7,5 million a year. The contribution of the estuarine floodplain areas to livestock grazing is estimated at R3,6 million per year.

Tourism related to the St Lucia estuary area employs an estimated 1291 direct full-time equivalent jobs and 6924 indirect jobs. There are about 510 000 visitors to the study area per annum, of whom 42% are foreign visitors, that spend R46 million on an estimated 157 000 tourism activities from local operators.

iSimangaliso is also home to around 800 hippo and 1 200 Nile crocodile, both of which are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened and Protected Species.