Deputy Minister Barbara Thomson calls on South Africans to protect and conserve our wetlands as South Africa marks World Wetlands Day

01 February 2019


The Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs Ms Barbara Thomson has urged South Africans to take a step towards protection and conservation of wetlands as South Africa joins the global community in marking World Wetlands Day on Saturday 2 February 2019. World Wetlands Day is celebrated annually on 2 February, with an aim to heighten education and raise public awareness on the value of wetlands and their vital contribution to human wellness.

“Our activities in commemoration of this all important day will focus on awareness raising campaigns in schools around the North West and Mpumalanga provinces. However, we call on every citizen throughout the country to desist from activities that would compromise the integrity of our wetlands. It is all our responsibility to preserve our natural environment for the benefit of current and future generations,” said Deputy Minister Thomson.

This year’s celebrations take place under the theme: “Wetlands and Climate Change.” The theme demonstrates the importance of wetlands as the planet’s most effective carbon sinks or storage that signify unrealised potential for climate mitigation and adaptation. Climate change is seen as a major threat to the survival of species and integrity of ecosystems on a global scale.

The ultimate objective is attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), specifically Goal 13 which urges parties to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, through strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries.

“Wetlands are an important part of the ecosystem, as they provide a number of benefits, not only to the natural environment, but also to the people’s livelihoods. Such benefits include: reduction of flooding, replenish drinking water, filter waste, and provision of urban green spaces. These benefits become more crucial as the number of people living in cities continues to increase,” says Deputy Minister Thomson.

Despite being high-value ecosystems wetlands make up only a small fraction of the country. Once considered valueless wastelands that needed to be converted to other uses in order to improve their usefulness to people, many governments around the world, including South Africa, were still providing farmers with incentives to convert their wetlands for agriculture as recently as the 1970s.

Wetland ecosystems are important habitats for flora and fauna and hence are of national and international importance for conservation. They deliver a number of critical ecological functions, which include the regulation of water regimes, and support a significant percentage of the world's biodiversity.

However, Ramsar Convention has reported that “wetland loss and degradation is a major concern, as it contributes to global warming by transforming these natural carbon sinks into emission sources. The burning and draining of peatlands accounts for a tenth of annual fossil fuel emissions - while wetland degradation contributes to nearly a quarter of global methane release.”

The recent National Biodiversity Assessment indicates that wetlands are the most threatened ecosystems globally, despite the services they provide. Wetlands in South Africa have enormous economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits. It is however sad to note that, to date, we have lost an estimated 50% of wetlands in South Africa due to unsustainable use and poor land management.

“This draws a clear picture of the precarious state of our wetland assets. Consequences of wetland loss include diminished water security, desertification, reduced food security, increased vulnerability to natural disasters, especially floods and droughts. With climate change predicted to change rainfall patterns, our wetlands will play a more important role than ever before in reducing the impacts of floods and droughts,” said Deputy Minister Thomson.

In an efforts to address wetland loss and degradation, the Department of Environmental Affairs runs the Working for Wetlands programme implemented through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). The initiative has since 2004 rehabilitated 1 400 wetlands (approximately 68 000 hectares), while providing 27 000 job and skills development opportunities.

The most significant factor that enabled the emergence of Working for Wetlands was the availability of government funds earmarked for employment creation and poverty reduction, through EPWP.

Thus, Working for Wetlands pursues its mandate of wetland rehabilitation and wise use in a manner that maximises employment creation, supports small emerging businesses, and transfers skills to its beneficiaries. In line with EPWP norms, the programme targets those groups most excluded from the mainstream economy, with particular emphasis on women, youth and people with disabilities.

All rehabilitation interventions therefore aim to improve the condition and functioning of the ecosystem, and address both causes and effects of degradation.

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