As part of efforts to preserve the country's water quality, South Africans have been urged to assist in protecting wetlands to mark the World Wetlands Day which was celebrated on the 2nd of February under the theme 'Wetlands and Water Management'.
Wetlands are South Africa’s most endangered ecosystems, according to the South African Biodiversity Institute's (SANBII’s) 2011 National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA), the first to assess the country's wetland systems critically.
The assessment reveals that SA has already lost about 50% of its original wetland area, and only 11% of what remains is well protected, while 71% is not protected at all. While most wetlands are privately owned, their protection has become a public concern that is currently focused on the role of wetlands in improving water quality and as a habitat for wildlife. Authorities say the environmental benefits of wetlands are vast, notably because of their role in protecting water quality by trapping sediments and retaining excess nutrients and other pollutants such as heavy metals.
"Government, communities, business and mining sectors, all of us have no choice but to conserve our water sources," Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Rejoice Mabudafhasi said at World Wetlands Day celebrations which were being held in the small town of Kareedouw in Port Elizabeth.
She described the call for the protection of wetlands and other water sources as a "catalyst" for economic development. "South Africa is a water scarce country and we need every innovation to bring this scarce resource to the people. The role of wetlands in this regard cannot be underestimated".
Nationally, Working for Wetlands has invested 530 million Rands in the rehabilitation of 906 wetlands, thereby improving or securing the health of more than 70,000 hectares of wetland area. In the process, the Working for Wetlands has provided 12,848 employment opportunities.
Mabudafhasi said over the past 11 years, 11 large gabion systems and concrete structure have been built at a cost of R10 million to combat erosion that threaten the remaining wetlands.
It was estimated that this work had improved water availability by approximately 32 000 litres of water per day per hectare cleared.
SA is a water-scarce country. It has half the international average rainfall of 800mm a year, and has already allocated more than 95% of its fresh water resources. The National Planning Commission warned in 2011 that SA had to pay urgent attention to management of water resources or risk having its development slowed.
With 95% of SA's fresh water already allocated by 2005 and only 4% of the country's surface area classified as & high water-yield& areas, any water source is precious. But the assessment notes that only 18% of SA's high water-yield areas have any form of formal protection.
Wetlands are water factories in that they have a direct effect on the quantity and quality of water resources. Wetlands are also important for social stability, because communities whose water supply is threatened are not happy people. A lack of adequate and safe drinking water played a significant part in service delivery protests across the country, the Water Research Commission said last year.
The Deputy Minister noted with appreciation the increasing number of eco-schools and the emphasis of environmental teachings since she believes strongly that sustaining a legacy can only be achieved through passing on the wisdom to future generations.