Repairing ecosystems is costly, but doing nothing is criminal

27 September 2019
Author   Bonani Madikizela
Biodiversity loss, water crises, alien invasive plants and climate change remain the top concerns. It is more urgent now than ever before to find tried and tested mechanisms that are key for mitigation, adaptation and a resilient future.
South Africa and the rest of the world are experiencing extreme weather events, including increased drought and flood frequencies, as a result of the climate crisis.  Under such conditions, resilience in society, business and the environment is central for preserving water security.
The Water Research Commission in partnership with the International Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the departments of environment, forestry and fisheries and of water and sanitation hosted an environmental conference in Cape Town on September 22nd.
The conference established a community of practice that will be the voice of restoration needs and sustain its efforts. Resilient ecosystems and people are central for water security. The United Nations declared 2021-2030 the decade of restoration.
South Africa is largely unprepared to cope with a variety of threats, including climate change, natural ecosystem degradation and invasion by alien species. Most of the drivers of ecosystem degradation are a result of unsustainable agriculture, mining and emissions.
The department of environment’s ‘Working for Water and Working for Wetlands’ programmes are examples of how restoration can be mainstreamed into national policy.  In the 24 years since these programmes were established, billions of Rand have been spent on rehabilitation, increasing river flows and clearing alien invasive species.
Africa’s landscape is among the worst eroded, with serious threats to food security, prosperity and resilience in the changing climatic conditions. The global urbanisation rate is estimated at 70 percent by 2050. This change in settlements means the carrying capacity of the landscape and its ability to provide ecosystem services will decrease at alarming rates, affecting food production and business and furthering natural habitat and biodiversity loss, poor water quality, an increase in water-borne related diseases, species extinctions, expansion of alien invasive species, veld fire disasters and many more negative effects.
These can be prevented or alleviated through embracing integrated water catchment planning and development, and realising that cities are an important component of the landscape.
It is estimated that 61 percent of South Africa’s landscape is moderately to highly degraded.  Soil degradation alone costs the country nearly R2-billion annually in dam siltation and increased water treatment costs caused by pollution. The ecosystem degradation is generally from source to sea, intensifying in the middle and lower reaches, including estuaries.
South Africa recently identified critical water resource areas. These comprise only eight percent of our land but provide 80 percent of our water resources, mainly from mountainous areas. These “water towers” require urgent protection. Research has revealed that more than 80 percent of our rivers are threatened with pollution.
Of the 2,400 wetlands mapped so far, more than 50 percent are seriously degraded. Some have lost their structure and functions, and no long filter the water flowing through them. Similarly, of about 300 estuaries, more than 65 percent are highly polluted and degraded, which seriously threatens their fish nursery function and affects fishing and tourism.
Dams are not natural infrastructures, but are extremely important to support the economy of the one of the driest countries in the world.  More than half are in a highly polluted state, affecting their ability to serve the nation’s fast-growing population.
Protecting catchment areas is one of the key investment opportunities Africans can make to safeguard their environment and heritage. The Nature Conservancy, a global environment non-profit organisation, studied threats to landscape in 30 African cities in the Southern African Development Community and found that 28 of these can improve water security immensely by reducing soil erosion, which leads to sedimentation of dams, reduces water quality, hikes purification costs and creates nutrient loading of lakes and rivers.
An illustrative point is the 55-billion litres of water a year that are lost to alien and invasive plants in the greater Cape Town metro. More than R300-million is required to restore just a quarter of the degraded catchment area in KwaZulu-Natal. Billions are spent on managing alien plants, but more resources (beyond Global Environment Facility donor funding) are required to clear alien plants across South Africa.
It is critical for business and those who use the land to invest in the restoration of natural ecosystems. Nature-based solutions are much cheaper than other water security interventions, such as desalination.  Any further delays will only mean we incur more costs to achieve the same results.
Bonani Madikizela is the research manager at the Water Research Commission


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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