JG Afrika participated in this year’s World Wetlands Day that brought together community leaders, municipalities, state departments and industry to discuss a workable solution to the rapidly declining water levels in the Vazi-wetlands in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
The initiative was prompted by the KwaZulu-Natal Wetlands Forum, including the Water Research Commission (WRC), the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and Mark Schapers, a technical director at JG Afrika.
Schapers has extensive experience working in the area, and he was the first to alert the WRC and SAEON to serious declines in water levels in the Vazi-wetlands three years ago.
He says that there is a high probability that the decline in groundwater levels is as a result of the expansion of two state-owned pine and blue gum plantations in the area. However, the extent of the impact that they are having on the surrounding dune systems that supply water to the Vazi-wetlands needs to be scientifically proven beyond doubt.
Exacerbating the problem is the burning of the peatlands, with the earliest reported incident of severe burning of the peatlands in Vazi-North in 1998.
The declining water levels are also having a dire influence on the livelihood of a community comprising about 150 000 people. They rely on this supply of water for their small farming activities.
Sue Janse van Rensburg, Grasslands-Wetlands-Forests Node Coordinator of the SAEON, says that all stakeholders have now agreed on a proposal to mitigate further declines in water levels in the area.
The formal proposal is being drafted and it details ways of replacing the existing resource-based economy in the area with sustainable alternatives.
This plan will be used to apply for funding from the Green Climate Fund to assist in the development of a document that will guide the implementation of a strategy for the Vazi-wetlands.
Janse Van Rensburg notes the need for urgent action, and points to research undertaken by Schapers and his team concerning the greater area around the Vazi-wetlands.
Their work has revealed a significant drop in the water table as early as 2000, while changes in climate and low rainfall levels in the area have compounded the situation.
The impact of below average precipitation in the area is evident by the extremely low levels of Lake Sibaya. Located in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, water levels of the largest fresh water lake in South Africa are at the lowest ever recorded.
At current below average rainfall trends, water levels at the Vazi-wetlands will continue to deteriorate at a rapid pace. Further research is required to determine whether changes in land use, rainfall levels and climate data will reverse the decline.
Groundwater recharge in the area is under investigation. While previously thought to be a simple function of rainfall, Schapers explains that studies into the recharge of groundwater are further complicated by high-energy events, such as cyclones, as well as flooding on the Pongola River.
Covering about 19 000 ha, the Manzengwenya and Mbazwane Plantations are located in Mhlabuyalingana Municipality within the uMkhanyakude District, and affect three traditional councils, including KwaTembe, KwaMbila and KwaMabaso.
The plan will propose ways of substituting the about 300 existing and future employment opportunities created in the forestry industry value-chain.
Meanwhile, she believes that there are many initiatives that can be implemented in the short-term to help stall further declines in water levels, not least of which is ensuring improved water governance in the area.