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Working for Wetlands

Introduction and background

Working for Wetlands is a joint initiative of the Departments of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Water and Sanitation (DWS) previously known as Water Affairs (DWA) and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). This illustration of cooperative governance and partnerships comes to life through projects that focus on the rehabilitation, wise use and protection of wetlands in a manner that maximises employment creation, supports small businesses and transfers relevant and marketable skills to beneficiaries.

Wetlands are our natural assets and natural infrastructure able to provide a range of products, functions and services, free of charge. Despite being high-value ecosystems they 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. 

These activities severely affected and dramatically altered South Africa’s landscapes over the past few centuries. Studies in several areas have suggested that between 35% and 60% of South Africa’s wetlands have already been lost or severely degraded.


A pivotal response by the government to this state of affairs was the establishment in 2002 of a national wetland rehabilitation programme, known as Working for Wetlands. The decision to create such a programme came about through the convergence of several driving forces. It drew on objectives in environmental, biodiversity, water and agriculture policies, and capitalised on the growing recognition that wetland degradation is not necessarily permanent, and that it is possible to reinstate at least some ecosystem services through rehabilitation. A foundation was provided for the creation of the programme, in the form of another pioneering government initiative.

Since 1996, the Working for Water programme had been engaged in removing thirsty invasive alien plants that posed a threat to the country’s water security, agricultural productivity and biodiversity. The non-governmental Mondi Wetlands Project recognised that the labour-intensive model pioneered by Working for Water would be equally suited to the activities involved in rehabilitating wetlands, and lobbied government to begin experimenting in this direction.

Perhaps the most significant factor enabling the emergence of Working for Wetlands was the availability of government funds earmarked for employment creation and poverty reduction, through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). This government-wide initiative was set up to draw significant numbers of unemployed people into the productive sector of the economy, gaining skills while they work and increasing their capacity to earn income. The ability to turn wetland rehabilitation into a labour-intensive process unlocked a magnitude of financial resources and political support that was previously inconceivable to cash-strapped government departments responsible for biodiversity conservation and natural resource management.

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.


Working for Wetlands is based on key interlinked concepts that ensure effective and sustainable wetland rehabilitation:

  • Wetland Protection, Wise Use & Rehabilitation
  • Skills and Capacity Development
  • Co-operative Governance & Partnerships
  • Knowledge Sharing
  • Communication, Education & Public Awareness

Combining environmental and social outcomes, Working for Wetlands weaves together the wise use of wetlands with employment creation and poverty alleviation. Using the rehabilitation of wetlands as a vehicle to achieve these outcomes, the programme follows an approach that centres on cooperative government and partnership creation with landowners, communities, civil society and the private sector.

Legislative framework

The South African government policy reflects the recognition that, in order to be truly effective, strategies for wetland conservation need to include a combination of proactive measures for maintaining healthy wetlands, together with actions to reverse past degradation. This latter aspect forms the core business of a government-led wetlands programme.

Section 24 of the Constitution of South Africa states that, ‘everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development’.

  • The 1984 Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act became the first substantial legal instrument for protecting wetlands and remains in force to this day.
  • Principles such as the ‘duty of care’, enshrined in section 28 of the National Environmental Management Act, require that landowners must take reasonable measures to prevent, minimise and rectify environmental degradation on their properties. Working for Wetlands offers technical expertise to landowners and collaborates with local partners to set rehabilitation objectives with the intention of improving the integrity and functioning of ecosystems. Rehabilitation measures address both the causes and effects of degradation.
  • The National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 (NEMA) the National Water Act 36 of 1998 (NWA) and the environmental provisions of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) ensure that urban and commercial developments do not affect or alter the natural state of wetlands.



1. Wetland Rehabilitation
Benefits accruing from the wetlands rehabilitated by Working for Wetlands include:
  • Improved livelihoods,
  • Protection of agricultural resources,
  • Enhanced biodiversity,
  • Cleaner water,
  • Reduced impacts from flooding and
  • Sustained base-flows in rivers. 


The 2011 National Biodiversity Assessment reveals that 65% of our wetland types are under threat (48% critically endangered, 12% endangered and 5% vulnerable). Only 11% of wetland ecosystem types are well protected, with 71% not protected at all.
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,
  • Reduction in biodiversity,
  • Lost livelihoods and
  • 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. 


All rehabilitation interventions therefore aim to improve the condition and functioning of the ecosystem, and address both causes and effects of degradation.
Typical rehabilitation process activities include:
  • Building concrete, earthen or gabion structures to arrest erosion, trap sediment and re-saturate drained wetland areas;
  • Plugging artificial drainage channels;
  • Addressing other causes of degradation, such as poor agricultural practices and invasive alien plants;
  • Plant propagation, re-vegetation and bio-engineering;
  • Building boardwalks, bird hides and interpretive signboards to enhance the recreational, tourism and educational value of rehabilitated wetlands;
  • Concluding contractual agreements with landowners to secure the rehabilitation work, prevent further degradation of wetlands and influence land use practices; and
  • Providing community members with part-time employment and training to monitor completed rehabilitation once the work is completed.


2. Training and Enterprise Development
Working for Wetlands, in partnership with the Department of Public Works, Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) and provincial agencies such as Gauteng Enterprise Propeller (GEP) and Limpopo Business Support Agency (LIBSA) provides assistance to Small Medium & Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) utilised by the programme with regards to training and business support. Contractors are also registered with CIDB.
Since its inception the Programme has been providing accredited and non-accredited training to its beneficiaries focusing on technical, business and life skills. In 2011, the Department of Higher Education and Training called for a move away from single unit standards and non-accredited training. The Programme grabbed this opportunity with both hands and registered a comprehensive skills programme for its beneficiaries with the Construction Education and Training Authority (CETA).
This skills programme comprises a three-tiered curriculum framework of fundamental, core and elective components. It provides a platform for beneficiaries to receive skills programme training while creating opportunities for them to explore further career paths. It forms part of CETA’s skills programmes and learnerships initiatives to develop South Africa’s human resource capacity and create a construction workforce whose skills are recognised and valued in terms of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). 
3. Capacity Building
Working for Wetlands is a people-intensive programme. Besides imparting vocational skills, life skills provided to project workers include literacy, primary health, personal finance and HIV/Aids awareness. Education and awareness projects influence the programme’s diverse stakeholders through activities ranging from field visits with decision makers to the distribution of resource material.
4. Research & Planning
Working for Wetlands previously housed the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) project which aims to provide clarity on the extent, distribution and condition of South Africa’s wetlands. The partnership and collaboration between the NWI and the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas (NFEPA) project produced sufficient data on the extent and diversity of our wetlands. The project clarified how many and which rivers and wetlands were maintained in a natural condition to sustain economic and social development, while still conserving our freshwater biodiversity.
The NFEPA atlas was launched in 2011 by the then Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Ms Rejoice Mabudafhasi. This information, which enables the planning of wetland rehabilitation on a catchment scale, is now available in the 2011 version of South Africa’s National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA). The NWI now sits within the newly formed Ecological Infrastructure Programme.
5. Wise Use
Working for Wetlands has learned many valuable lessons during the course of rehabilitating hundreds of wetlands. One of the most significant of these is that good stewardship, in the form of ownership of and engagement with the rehabilitation process by landowners and wetland users, is a vital ingredient for successful and sustainable rehabilitation. As a result, the programme has over the years been investigating more holistic approaches to improving the sustainability of rehabilitation work, while still allowing rehabilitated wetlands to be used to generate benefits for people.
In tackling this challenge, the programme partnered with the Wildlife and Environment Society of Southern Africa (WESSA), previously home of the Mondi Wetlands Programme, which has decades of accumulated experience in working at ground level with precisely these issues. Another non-governmental organisation, the Association for Water & Rural Development (AWARD), which has extensive experience in testing approaches to community-based natural resource management, was also roped in.
The first “Wise Use” pilot project launched by these partners focused on the existing Working for Wetlands rehabilitation project in communally-owned land in the Mutale River catchment in Limpopo. AWARD noted that accelerated degradation is often typical in areas where surrounding communities depend heavily on wetlands for grazing, food crop production and thatching material. There was, therefore, a need to focus on the causes of degradation and not just on the symptoms, such as soil erosion. 
In seeking to understand and support the delicate balance between use and protection, wise use focusses on local-level custodianship in communities. Community researchers and monitors, known as CRMs, are trained to undertake research and monitoring and act as facilitators and mediators between the community and Working for Wetlands. Initially the Wise Use project worked with volunteers who were selected through a formal community-engagement process. As the project evolved further, Working for Wetlands looked for ways to formalise the functions performed by the CRMs into green jobs, in line with the programme’s mandate as part of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). Today the CRMs are formally employed and remunerated in line with the prescripts of the EPWP.  
Borrowing from approaches to community-based natural resource management being tested in Thailand and Brazil, the project placed a great deal of emphasis on supporting the CRMs to design and undertake their own research and monitoring activities. Initially these took the form of tracking the response of the wetlands to the rehabilitation interventions. The CRMs and community recognised that, if they were to monitor improvements in wetland health and the intended social benefits, they needed to understand certain contextual factors and so they posed key questions like:
  • Social   aspects: Who uses the wetlands and for what? How does this   contribute to healthy livelihoods?
  • Biophysical aspects: What constitutes a healthy a wetland and why?
  • Landuse practices: What are our current land use practices and how do they affect wetland health? How can these be improved?
  • Governance aspects: What are the current governance practices and   how can these be supported?
  • Monitoring: What are the indicators we need to track to understand social and biophysical health related to the wetlands?
  • Reporting and action: Who do we report to and how? What is the purpose of the reporting and what are the actions that need to be taken? 


To date, the CRMs have gathered, analysed and synthesized information to answer many of these complex questions, and are now using their results to interact with various stakeholders. Data collection has involved household surveys, wetland mapping and delineation and land use assessments.
The Wise Use concept
The language of “wise use of wetlands” comes from the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which defines it as “the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development." This equates to pursuing a more people-centred approach to the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and their resources, in a manner that does not jeopardise the ability of the ecosystems to continue providing these benefits into the future.
For more details of the Ramsar approach to wise use, consult the series of handbooks published by the Convention on the wise use of wetlands, in particular Handbook 1: Concepts and approaches for the wise use of wetlands.
The link to this handbook is 

Performance indicators

  • Number of person days
  • Number of jobs created
  • Number of training days
  • Number of wetlands rehabilitated
  • Number gabion structures
  • Number of concrete structures
  • Number earthern structures
  • Number of earth works
  • Number of re-vegetation
  • Number of hectares of cleared invasive plants 


Major achievements:
Since the year 2004, the programme has invested about 826.8 million rand in the rehabilitation of over 1,000 wetlands. About 23,472 job opportunities have been created in the process, generating over 2.59 million per person days worked. In line with the EPWP emphasis, 219,485 vocational and life skills training per person days have been generated as well, thus equipping communities with marketable skills. 
When wetland rehabilitation started the budget was not more than a mere R20 million. By 2007 the Programme had rehabilitated more wetlands, increased its budget, and created more employment opportunities than had been anticipated in 2002 and this saw the Programme’s budget increase.
This large-scale investment of public funds in wetland rehabilitation stimulated a range of supporting activities, including the publication by the Water Research Commission in 2008 of an eleven volume series of reports, manuals and guidelines for wetland assessment and rehabilitation. This helped to strengthen the scientific and technical foundation for the programme’s work which, together with an investment in wetland inventory and classification, enhanced the scope to plan and undertake systematic rehabilitation at catchment scale.
Some of the major challenges surrounding the implementation of wetland rehabilitation projects
  • Heavy rains, floods and inaccessible roads, and temperatures reaching above 40 degrees Celsius,
  • Dangerous animals such as venomous snakes and wild life within Parks,
  • Access to privately owned land,
  • Buy-in of communities, whether in private or communal land,
  • Staff accommodation and safe-keeping of rehabilitation material in distant areas.


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