iSimangaliso’s Victory for Nature
Watch 50/50 on Thursday 21 July 2016 – SABC2, 20h00
Earlier this year, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park embarked upon what is arguably the biggest wetland rehabilitation in the world, and a milestone in the healing of the Lake St Lucia Estuary. In February, a R10 million contract was signed with Cyclone Engineering Projects (Pty) Ltd to remove some 100 000m3 of dredge spoil (sand, silt and vegetation) obstructing the natural course of the uMfolozi River.
Site establishment began several weeks later and despite a number of challenges thrown at us by Mother Nature – including extended drought conditions and the need to use sea water for the equipment rather than fresh water from the estuary – the site is established and the operation is running well on the Park’s Estuary Beach.
The history of Lake St Lucia’s separation
Historically, red flags had been raised about the possible impacts of silt on the estuarine system – a consequence of the canalisation of the uMfolozi River by sugarcane farmers and the now abnormally functioning floodplain. To mitigate the risks to the system, measures were taken to partially separate the uMfolozi River from the St Lucia Estuary in 1952 by depositing dredge spoil between the two and artificially breaching the uMfolozi River into the sea at the south near Maphelane.
Since then – and for 60-odd years – dredge spoil was artificially deposited in the natural course of the uMfolozi River. This significantly reduced freshwater to Lake St Lucia from the uMfolozi River, the largest of the five rivers entering the system. It also interfered with nature’s ability to regulate the opening and closing of the estuary mouth.
Innovative research by independent researchers from a range of disciplines was pulled together under the auspices of the newly established iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority. In 2010, a multi-disciplinary research team was contracted by iSimangaliso to concretise solutions for the hydrological problems facing the Lake St Lucia system.
The new research debunked the myth that siltation and sediments were a problem for the Lake St Lucia system. Silt is an important component of the estuary benthos – the life-giving organisms that inhabit the bed of the estuary and provide nutrition for, inter alia, fish. It also concluded that the uMfolozi River, which had been actively managed out of its system up to 2006, has two significant functions: as the major contributor of freshwater to the Estuary and, importantly, as the powerhouse that drives the mouth dynamics that keep it open and result in it closing.
The study strongly recommended that nature should be left to its own devices and the uMfolozi should be allowed to pursue its natural path northwards. This would allow the uMfolozi to once again take its rightful place as the contributor of some 60% of the Lake’s freshwater.
The significance of the uMfolozi River, especially during the current severe drought, was recognised on 20 May 2016 when iSimangaliso received a ground breaking victory for nature when the presiding high court Judge Mohini Moodley ruled in favour of the environment.
Judge Moodley dismissed the application by the Umfolozi Sugar Planters Ltd (UCOSP) and two farmers against iSimangaliso, the Departments of Environment Affairs, Water and Sanitation, Rural Land Reform and Development and Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries.
The dispute between the parties concerned the breaching of the uMfolozi River to the sea. UCOSP and the two farmers contended they had a right to do this to alleviate back-flooding on certain low-lying farms. The farms in question comprised less than 1% of the 9127ha under sugarcane.
iSimangaliso contended that it was implementing a management strategy for the estuary that had been developed after consultation with UCOSP that had started in 2008. The restoration project comprised minimum interference, the re-establishment of the natural river course, and a one-mouth policy.
“South Africa is a water scarce country and finds itself in one of the worst droughts in living memory. Innovation is key to conserving and managing our water resources. The struggle to save Lake St Lucia is central to this issue. Estuaries, with their surrounding wetlands, comprise some of the most productive yet threatened eco-systems in the world. They are important in the moderation of global climatic conditions, naturally improve water quality, and provide important economic and recreational opportunities. They form a vital link between marine, aquatic and terrestrial eco-systems.
“Caring for and healing of the earth is integral to our humanity. I would like to thank the Global Environmental Facility, World Bank, and the Department of Environmental Affairs for their support in achieving this goal,” says iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis.
A unique resource
The world recognised the uniqueness of Lake St Lucia when iSimangaliso was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999. The UNESCO evaluation recognised that there “is no other place like this on the globe”. First proclaimed in 1895, Lake St Lucia is the world’s oldest protected estuary and forms the centrepiece of iSimangaliso. It was also recognised as a wetland of international significance and made a Ramsar site in 1986. It is Africa’s largest estuarine lake and comprises over 60% of South Africa’s estuarine area.
The Lake St Lucia estuarine system supports high levels of biodiversity and viable populations of threatened species, which are of international and national importance, including feeding and breeding areas for endangered and endemic species. It is the most important nursery ground for juvenile marine fish and prawns along the KwaZulu-Natal coast. More than 50% of all water birds in KwaZulu-Natal feed, roost and nest in this estuary. Importantly it is a breeding area for several bird species, which are rare or have limited distributions in South Africa. The system is one of the most important protected areas for the conservation of the Nile crocodile in South Africa and the. The hippopotamus is an iconic animal for Lake St Lucia. Listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, Lake St Lucia is recognised as having the largest viable population of hippo in South Africa. The contribution to fisheries is also significant. Of the 155 fish species that have been recorded in the St Lucia estuarine system, 71 species use Lake St Lucia as a nursery area and at least 24 of these are important in marine line fisheries.
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