Why are wetlands so important?

Many communities across Africa are directly dependent on wetlands for their survival, while wetlands provide indirect, but crucial services to many others.
importance of wetlandsYet despite this, these critical ecosystems are deteriorating and their capacity to provide goods and services is increasingly diminished as a result of human activities.

With the signing of the Convention on Wetlands in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 (the Ramsar Convention), the 2nd of February was declared World Wetlands Day. This is a day when we reflect on the benefits that wetlands provide and highlight the need for society to appreciate the value and functions of wetlands.

About 50% of South Africa’s wetlands have already been destroyed or converted through draining, the building of dams, incorrect burning and overgrazing, invasive alien species, waste disposal, water abstraction, agricultural, urban development and inappropriate land management. These losses are expected to increase as the human population grows and demand for water resources and land expands.

The benefits that humans obtain from wetlands can be classified into direct use, indirect and non-use:

  • Rural communities obtain direct benefits from wetlands when they harvest reeds for crafts, grow crops in wetland fields and extract water for drinking. They also obtain medicinal plants from wetlands, and at least 70% of South Africans are believed to use traditional medicine as their primary form of health care.
  • Indirect benefits include services such as the purification of water contaminated by industrial and domestic waste through physical filtration and dissolution of chemicals. Furthermore, wetlands mitigate floods and droughts by slowing down the flow of the water during the rainy season and storing water for release in the dry season. In this way they reduce the impact of natural disasters and reduce soil erosion, which would otherwise mean the loss of arable land and potable water. The unique and often spectacular biodiversity present in wetlands attracts tourists, which translates into socio-economic opportunities for local communities and increased revenue for the country.
  • Wetlands have for millennia provided breeding and feeding habitats for birds, insects, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Wetlands are thus rich in biodiversity and are important stop-overs for many migratory species, while some species are dependent on wetlands for breeding. Thus, how one country treats its wetlands has effects on species from across the globe. Wetlands are also important carbon sinks, playing a key role in mitigating climate change.

Thus wetland conservation is not only about the rural people who are directly dependent on them for their survival, but affects all human beings and several other species. Every wetland forms an integral part of a natural ecological system that supports human well-being and biodiversity. This applies to wetlands of all types irrespective of size or location.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) is protecting African wetlands in a number of ways:

  • Development of wetland management plans: the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership for African Cranes has been working closely with Ugandan communities and Nature Uganda since the 1990s. The programme helps communities that have a direct dependency on wetlands to develop management plans that will allow them to use the wetlands in a sustainable way. The community is very involved in the development of these plans, which are currently in the form of written guidelines. The next step is to have the plans ratified by the district council so that they become binding. The model is also being rolled out to other African countries, notably Kenya and Zimbabwe.
  • Wetland rehabilitation: Where wetlands have been degraded through human activity the ICF/EWT Partnership for African Cranes plays a supportive role in helping communities replant indigenous vegetation and effectively rehabilitate these wetlands.
  • Helping rural communities live sustainably: The EWT’s Conservation Leadership group (EWT-CLG) runs the Rural Eco Warrior Programme, which works with potential leaders within rural communities to identify and solve environmental problems particular to that community. Ebumnandini in the Mpophomeni area of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands is a low-cost housing government initiative where about 75% of the houses have been built on a steep slope, with the remaining 25% built within the wetland area. This, together with uncontrolled grazing and burning regimes, soil erosion caused by livestock trampling, wind, rain and human movements, have led to parts of the Ebumnandini wetland becoming degraded. The EWT-CLG works with this community to prevent further degradation and to restore already degraded areas.
  • Developing nature-based tourism and protecting wetlands: Sam van Coller, a long time EWT supporter and representative of the Elizabeth Wakeman Henderson Charitable Foundation, introduced to the EWT-CLG to the Telekeshi community in the Waterberg region. Located within this community are a small wetland and a few rock art and Stone Age sites. The community plans to develop the area to cater for visiting tourists. A few community members have been trained as bird guides but as yet have not had a facility or the clients to make a living from their training. Despite being degraded due to overgrazing, erosion and alien plant invasions, the wetland area supports many bird species. The EWT-CLG is working with the community to address these issues and to restore the wetland to a more pristine habitat, which will contribute to the tourism package offered by the Telekeshi community and ensure that the community can continue to have clean water for drinking and washing.

The EWT also continually uses opportunities for awareness and education around the importance and value of wetlands, highlighting flagship species such as the Critically Endangered Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunulatus to drive home the urgency of wetland protection.

What can the public do to protect wetlands?

  • do not dump waste in wetlands;
  • adhere to approved urban development plans that clearly define wetland boundaries and buffer zones as no development areas;
  • do not litter or pollute our water ways as this enters and overloads our wetlands;
  • organise or participate in clean-ups in your area; and
  • support wetland conservation initiatives such as those run by the EWT.

The ICF/EWT Partnership for African Cranes is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature, Rand Merchant Bank, Lufthansa, the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund, Eskom, SASOL, Millstream, Agricol, Senqu Clothing, PG Bison, the Dohem Family Foundation, the Vodacom Foundation, Whitley Fund for Nature, Sea World and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. The Wattled Crane Recovery Programme is supported by the Mazda Wildlife Fund, Mondi Shanduka Newsprint, the KZN Crane Foundation and the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund.

Source: Green Times

Wetlands are also often overloaded and polluted from storm water runoff from urban areas.  Cities are characterised by impervious surfaces (rooftops, paving, roads, etc.) which results in unnaturally high volumes entering local waterways and wetlands.  This causes streambank erosion and stormwater often carries pollutants such as oil/fuel from roads, chemicals from yards/industrial areas and domestic chemicals from from houses.  One way of reducing stormwater runoff is via rainwater harvesting.  Rainwater is collected off rooftops and directed to rain water tanks or rain barrels which can then be used to supplement domestic and business water requirements.  Added benefits of rainwater tanks are that they reduce or eliminate municipal water bills and ensure that there is a supply of water during water supply cuts and disasters.

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