Protecting our water factories – our grasslands | WWF South Africa

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Protecting our water factories – our grasslands

South Africa cannot secure water production without conserving our grasslands, which are our natural water factories. They are critical for water and food production for the nation, and they are home to a high number of threatened wildlife species, which are key indicators of the health of our ecosystems.

South Africa cannot secure water production without conserving our grasslands, which are our natural water factories. They are critical for water and food production for the nation, and they are home to a high number of threatened wildlife species, which are key indicators of the health of our ecosystems.
Understanding this crucial interdependence, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust has supported major water and grassland conservation projects for the past 15 years. This has led to the proclamation of several Protected Environments in high-water-yield areas in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. These areas provide water for the cities, rural communities, agricultural sector and industries in these provinces, as well as for Gauteng.
Protected Environments and Nature Reserves are legislated under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (NEMPAA), and are afforded a high level of formal protection against developments such as mining or fracking. Private landowners and land-owning communities can therefore play a key conservation role by having their land proclaimed as a formally protected area through the innovative national Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. Farmers in both Protected Environments and Nature Reserves may continue farming the land in accordance with a mutually agreed management plan, and benefit from more sustainable practices.
South Africa's first Protected Environment was proclaimed in 2010. Called the KwaMandlangampisi Protected Environment, it is a critical water catchment area for South Africa that includes the headwaters of the Pongola and Assegaai Rivers. It spans 23 600 ha of privately owned farmland in the high-altitude grasslands of southern Mpumalanga.
It is situated in the Enkangala Grassland region – a high-water-production area for South Africa, spanning 1,6 million hectares of grasslands across KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Free State. From 2002, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust contributed more than R20 million to the Enkangala Grassland Project. In 2014, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust further contributed almost R1 million to the Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas Programme to secure the formal protection of critical grassland habitats in Mpumalanga, the Free State and Gauteng based on indicator bird species.
Between 2014 and 2016 the following Protected Environments in Mpumalanga and the Free State, supported by a number of NGOs including the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and BirdLife South Africa, were proclaimed:
  • Mpumalanga Lakes District Protected Environment in the Chrissiesmeer region. Spanning 60 000 ha, this is South Africa's largest protected environment to date.
  • Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment (14 000 ha) in Mpumalanga's Steenkampsberg region.
  • Sneeuwberg Protected Environment (17 456 ha) proclaimed in July 2016 and the first protected environment in the Free State.
Building on this is the Highlands Grassland Conservation Project, which is currently focused on protected area expansion in Mpumalanga and the Free State. It was initiated in May 2015, is led by the EWT’ Threatened Grassland Species Programme and supported by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. The team closely collaborates with BirdLife South Africa and WWF-SA.
'We are working with a large number of private landowners, mostly farmers, to expand the existing protected area footprint in the highland grasslands of the Free State and Mpumalanga,' says the manager of the EWT Threatened Grassland Species Programme, Catherine Hughes.
'The project aims to protect the expanded areas from overutilisation and inappropriate developments, in order to manage these highland grasslands for sustainable freshwater production and climate change resilience, and to create conservation corridors for the survival of threatened and endemic species.’
EWT field officers Bradley Gibbons and Mauritz de Bruin are using the Sungazer (Smaug giganteus) and Botha's lark (Spizocorys fringillaris) as the project's main flagship species. Both are endemic to the grasslands of the Free State and Mpumalanga.
'They encourage landowners and communities to become Sungazer Custodians as a precursor to the broader Biodiversity Stewardship initiative,' Hughes explains. 'Travelling far and wide they show communities, farmers and farmworkers what this iconic reptile and the Botha's lark look like, and they talk about how they require intact grasslands for their survival. They also discuss land and water management practices.'
One of the proposed new Protected Environments in the Free State is in the greater Harrismith area, and includes hotspot areas for both the Sungazer and Botha’s Lark. It is called the Verkykerskop/Eeram Protected Environment, spanning 53 000 ha and 56 farms, and still has large tracts of intact grassland. The area has cattle, but grazing is not a concern if it is well managed, as it is highly compatible with grassland conservation. 
Gibbons is also working with BirdLife South Africa's Ernst Retief, who is leading another proposed Protected Environment in the Free State, namely the Wilge Stewardship Project near Van Reenen. This project covers an area of approximately 45 000 ha bordering the Ingula Nature Reserve, which is listed as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. The 24 threatened bird species recorded in the area indicate just how important this area is from a bird conservation point of view. 
In Mpumalanga, the EWT team is also working on the proposed Versamelberge Protected Environment in the Volksrust region, spanning almost 30,000 ha. This area contains the only remaining large Sungazer population within the province found within intact grassland.
Most of the landowners (farmers) in these areas have been consulted about Biodiversity Stewardship, and many of them are keen to partner in conservation initiatives and be part of the proclamation process. Their farms have been assessed for their biodiversity and water provision value, and locations of the Sungazer and Botha's lark documented and mapped.
'We work closely with Brian Morris, the head of Biodiversity Stewardship at the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and Dave Hayter of the Free State Department of Economic, Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs,' says Hughes.
'Given the budget and resource constraints that provincial government departments are increasingly facing, it is essential for NGOs to work together with government, universities and private landowners to expand the highland grasslands protected area footprint for the benefit of all South Africans,' says Hughes.
WWF Water Balance Programme
South Africa's economic, social and environmental wellbeing depends on a sustainable supply of fresh, healthy water. As such, water is everyone's responsibility and all South Africans must step up to ensure a water-secure future.
Nedbank recognises its responsibility to contribute towards water security and became a proud participant of the WWF Water Balance Programme in 2011. This participation is one of the ways through which Nedbank is delivering on its purpose to use its financial expertise to do good for individuals, families, businesses and society.
WWF-SA collaborates with various corporate partners, including Nedbank, Woolworths and Sanlam, as well as government and civil society in a concerted effort to address water access, quality and quantity. These partnerships are crucial to addressing South Africa's water challenges and helping to safeguard the sustainability of our country.
The WWF Water Balance Programme focuses on removing invasive alien plants, actively restoring landscapes by planting indigenous seeds and plants, maintaining cleared areas, and turning removed plant biomass into usable raw material.
To find out more about the WWF Water Balance Programme go to:
Tax incentives
In addition to the protection from development applications afforded to them, private landowners and communities who have their land declared a Protected Environment or Nature Reserve are entitled to apply for rates and taxes rebates. BirdLife South Africa's Fiscal Benefits Project, supported by the WWF Green Trust from 2015 to 2017, has achieved a further major breakthrough by successfully including the first biodiversity tax incentive for nature reserves in an annual tax return at the end of 2016. For the first time ever section 37D of the Income Tax Act allows any landowner whose land or part of it has been declared a Nature Reserve from 1 March 2015 to deduct the value of the land from their taxable income over a number of years.
Sungazer research
The EWT team has initiated, sourced startup funding for and assisted two Master’s students, Richard Viljoen and Msizi Mleti, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with their fieldwork to study the landscape utilised by Sungazers in comparison to disturbed areas. Another of our student partners, Zwelakhe Zondi (studying through the Tshwane Institute of Technology in partnership with the South African National Biodiversity Institute), is carrying out exciting research on the use of Sungazers in traditional medicine and the pet trade.
350 birds species
Some 350 of South Africa's 844 bird species are found in our grasslands, 40% of which are 'grassland specialists', meaning they do not live anywhere else. Among these are 29 of the 133 South African red data bird species, which occur in grasslands and associated wetlands, including all five of South Africa's critically endangered bird species: the wattled crane, blue swallow, Rudd's lark, Eurasian bittern and white-winged flufftail. If we look at the wattled cranes as one example, there are only about 320 wattled cranes left in the wild, and very few breeding pairs – probably only about five – in the whole of Mpumalanga. The demise of our wattled cranes and other grassland species is cause for concern because it directly points to the demise of our water sources, without which we cannot survive.
Sustainable livestock farming is compatible with grassland conservation

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