World Wetlands Day – 2 February 2018
Water scarcity is a global challenge, with Southern Africa being the hardest hit. South Africa is especially water stressed – ranked the 30th driest country in the world.
With annual rainfall levels about half the world average, South Africa also experiences unevenly distributed rainfall in our landscapes and we have a highly variable climate where droughts and floods are common.
Water availability is one of the most decisive factors that will affect the economic, social and environmental well-being of South Africa over the next decade, with huge economic development pressures and social upliftment challenges.
Water does not come from a dam, pipe or tap – and water supply issues cannot be solved by building more dams or creating more infrastructure. It requires rehabilitating, maintaining and conserving the natural areas which form the critical catchments and ‘water factories’ for our country.
This is why International Wetlands Day, themed Wetlands for a sustainable urban
future and celebrated on 2 February, is such an important event, says Deidré Penfold, Executive Director of the Chemical and Allied Industries’ Association (CAIA).
In South Africa, many communities rely on wetland environments for their livelihood: Providing fibre, protein, water and an agricultural resource (cultivation and grazing). This reliance on wetlands is expected to increase rather than decrease in both rural areas and those adjacent to impoverished urban communities.
The loss of ecological infrastructure, such as wetlands, significantly affects the availability of water – especially when clusters of wetlands lose their ability to release water in times of drought.
The loss of wetlands also negatively affects the ability of water systems to offset flow in times of flooding.
More than 50% of South Africa’s wetlands have been destroyed resulting in increased flooding, less reliable water supplies, and less pure water for the country.
“By 2012 about 115 000 wetlands, covering over 4 million ha and comprising close to 4% of the country’s surface area, had been mapped in South Africa,” says Penfold.
The National Biodiversity Assessment 2011 Report stated that 65% of wetland ecosystem types in South Africa are threatened, including 48% that are critically endangered, making wetlands the most threatened of all of South Africa’s ecosystems.
A major function performed by wetland ecosystems is the removal of suspended sediments from water moving through the wetland, as well as excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate, and toxicants like pesticides and heavy metals.
Our remaining wetlands must be managed wisely, and the chemical industry has a role to play in the process, says Penfold. “Let’s not forget that wetlands contribute to the national and local economies not only by producing resources and enabling recreational activities, but also by pollution control and flood protection.”