Celebrating 25 years of conserving wetlands for people and nature
Internationally, World Wetlands Day has been on the environmental calendar since 1997, and this year South Africa has an added reason to be part of these celebrations. A major programme, the WWF-Mondi Wetlands Programme (WWF MWP) that helps conserve the vital wetlands of our water-stressed country, is celebrating its silver anniversary. As one of South Africa’s longest running privately funded ecological conservation programmes, over the past 25 years it has helped move wetlands conservation to the main stage of the country’s conservation efforts.
Globally, wetlands make vital contributions to people’s well-being and economic growth through activities like farming, fishing, tourism and water provision. They host a rich biodiversity, protect coastlines, prevent flooding and act as natural sponges that store water, releasing it slowly over. Wetlands store carbon dioxide, thus slowing the impact of climate change. But despite providing these vital ecological goods and services, wetlands are still often abused. Since the turn of the 20th century, some two-thirds of all the planet’s wetlands have been destroyed, and South Africa has already lost over half its wetlands.
Meanwhile, water stress in our country is fast reaching a critical point. It’s estimated that the rising demand for water will exceed supply by 2025 if current usage trends continue. So wetland conservation has a vital role to play in securing our country’s freshwater sources for the future, in turn promoting economic and social development.
“In an extremely dry country like South Africa, where we are currently in the grips of one of the most severe droughts our country has ever experienced, the wise stewardship of wetlands and freshwater ecosystems is of paramount importance to secure what limited water resources we have,” says WWF MWP programme manager Dr David Lindley.
The work of the WWF MWP is particularly relevant to the 2016 World Wetlands Day theme: “Wetlands for our Future: Sustainable Livelihoods”, that was selected to demonstrate how wetlands are tied to the future well-being of humanity and their relevance in achieving the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals.
There’s been a radical growth in awareness of the importance of wetlands during the past 25 years
The WWF MWP started in 1991 as a joint WWF South Africa and WESSA wetland conservation proposal that was successfully implemented by KZN Wildlife for five years before a decision was taken to expand it nationally. The first funders were SAB and Rennies Freight, followed five years later by international packaging and paper group Mondi that has now been the programme’s corporate sponsor for a full 15 years.
A facilitator of wetland and freshwater stewardship rather than implementer, the programme currently has six full-time staff members and one part-timer.
The WWF MWP played a key role in initiating the government’s Working for Wetlands programme in 2000. This programme alleviates poverty by using previously unemployed people to rehabilitate degraded wetlands, thereby also securing water and maintaining biological diversity. Overall, the government has committed about half a billion rands to Working for Wetlands, creating around 2,000 jobs each year.
Wetland expert John Dini of the SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), who was the Working for Wetlands programme manager from 2004 to 2013, says there’s been a radical growth in awareness of the importance of wetlands during the past 25 years. “And that’s due in no small part to the efforts of the MWP.”
The WWF MWP provided direct guidance and support for Working for Wetlands until 2006. Since then, it’s had a focus shift. Now, it works in major catchments with industries that have traditionally impacted wetlands and water resources, like sugarcane production and forestry, using its new “landscape” approach to water stewardship.
This is aimed at strengthening the resilience of the freshwater ecological infrastructure in these catchments through creating a deeper understanding of shared responsibilities and shared risks, explains Lindley.
Since 2014, its been applying this approach in two water-stressed catchments – the uMngeni River catchment in KZN, home to some five million people where some 18% of South Africa’s gross domestic product is generated, and its neighbouring uMvoti catchment. This year, its work is being expanded to the uMhlathuze catchment at Richards Bay.
“These catchments are massively important,” says Lindley. “Both the uMngeni and uMvoti are highly stressed in terms of both water quantity and quality, and we want to improve water security in these catchments by working with landowners involved in farming – particularly sugar, dairy and forestry.”
He explains that the WWF MWP works with producers at ground level, helping them become better stewards of the wetlands, riparian areas and rivers on their properties, and encouraging the implementation of water stewardship beyond farm and sector boundaries. “We want water resources to be managed across physical boundaries, so that this isn’t just the responsibility of the farmer or the landowner, but that of everyone involved in the value chain who all need to accept responsibility for the sustainable use of water in these production areas,” he says. This includes, for example, retailers who sell the end products, or the big buyers of sugar like the Coca Cola Company or SABMiller, the mills who produce the sugar, and the banks and insurance companies that can offer better rates and reduced insurance premiums for better farming practices.
"[O]ur water stewardship activities are scientifically based and practical to implement..."
Because the landscape approach to freshwater stewardship requires staff with skills in the social sciences discipline, staff training and capacity building has been a critical part of WWF MWP in recent years. The programme has also run successful internships and capacity-building projects that have made a significant contribution towards growing the country’s community of wetland and environmental practitioners.
From 2011, five young professionals undertook the internship programme under her guidance, doing Master’s degree research on the programme’s work while gaining valuable work experience and networking opportunities.
One of them was Nokuthula “Noks” Dubazane, who is passionate about exploring environmental impacts on the livelihoods of people. She joined the WWF MWP as a research intern while enrolled for a Master’s degree at Rhodes University, and was subsequently employed as programme officer for a year. “As an intern I got to do not only my Masters work but also to help out with practical development work in the field, in the Makuya community (in north-eastern Limpopo),” she recalls. “It was a nice combination, a very good mentorship.” That experience has been “crucial” in her current job as an environmentalist for the eThekwini Municipality’s department of Development Planning, Environment and Management.
Themba Vilane, Operations Manager: Forestry at Mondi, says that from their perspective, the WWF MWP has been “very successful” in wetlands management and in other areas of water stewardship and that Mondi is proud to sponsor and support the work of the programme.
“We’ve benefitted from the expertise and experience of the WWF MWP team in further developing a sound approach to water stewardship in our forestry operations in South Africa, ensuring that our water stewardship activities are scientifically based and practical to implement.”
Going forward, the WWF-MWP will focus on catalysing effective private water stewardship in KwaZulu-Natal. And in the light of the current drought in South Africa, the WWF MWP’s work on water stewardship “has never been as pertinent as it is now”, says Lindley.