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Who is to blame for the floods in Southern Africa?
by iNet News Manager
Ecology News Reports
source: Ecology News Network

Seattle, WA, •• March 4, 2000 •• SolarQuest® iNet News Service ••
"Locked in a victim mentality, we are missing the point about our hand in the recent flood devastation," says David Lindley of the Rennies Wetlands Project

"The cumulative impact of human activities without regard for nature has turned the recent floods from a natural phenomenon into a man-made disaster of epic proportions," asserts David Lindley, national co-ordinator of the Rennies Wetlands Project (RWP).

"Floods are a natural occurrence but nature has lots of checks and balances for preventing them getting out of hand," he points out. "Rivers do not occur in isolation but are part of intricate wetland systems consisting of grassland 'sponges' in the upper catchment areas, to marshes, reedbeds and floodplains in the middle catchment to swamp forests and estuaries at the bottom. These and many other types of wetlands are all linked together by rivers. Grasslands and wetlands are the river's safety valves. Grasslands are incredibly effective at increasing the infiltration of rain runoff into the ground. This reduces surface runoff flowing into rivers and streams during times of high rainfall, and maximises ground water seepage into these areas in the dry periods. When a river floods, wetlands spread out the water, slow it down and absorb it like a sponge, preventing the dangerously high peaks from occurring. It is these peaks which cause most of the damage, such as washing away bridges, and flooding towns." With approximately 50% of South Africa's wetlands destroyed through poor land management, the recurrence of devastating floods can only increase. Unless we manage sustainably what we have left.

"What humans have done, in our infinite arrogance and lack of foresight, is to upset the integrity of our wetlands and mess with the dynamics of our rivers," Lindley says. The RWP has surveyed the upper catchment of the Sand River in Mpumalanga, for example, and found that 80% of the wetlands and most of the grasslands have been tilled for subsistence farming or overgrazed. It is no wonder that the Sand River is a raging torrent, if the upper catchment is in such poor condition. In the Northern Province, the same is true for wetlands of the Letaba River, which runs swollen and angry, overloaded with South Africa's greatest and most vital export - top soil. Vast tracts of bushveld have been overgrazed, leaving the soil bare, hard, and vulnerable to sheet erosion and flooding. This sad tale is bound to be true for those tributaries flowing into the flooding Limpopo. All over South Africa, floodwaters often have nowhere safe to go anymore. They cannot sink into the ground or be held back by marshes and floodplains. So they build up to monstrous proportions, wreaking havoc along their path and finally off loading their load of water onto land at the end of the chain - in this case the people of Mozambique. South Africa is externalizing it's cost of poor land management onto it's neighbours.

"Look at the recent tragedies along the Jukskei River in Gauteng, below the Hartebeespoort Dam and North West Province, as well as problems along the Orange river. Gauteng, believe it or not, is a watershed for rivers that run to all points of the compass. In the past, its grasslands and wetlands acted as a sponge to absorb water and dampen peak flows. These days, most of Gauteng is paved so water hardly soaks into the ground anymore. Instead it runs off in great volumes and at great speeds into storm water drains and then into rivers. And look at the state of our rivers nowadays - there is little natural grass or indigenous tree cover along the banks any more to stabilise them. As a result storm water slices off great chunks of river bank as it ploughs through, creating large, straight channels that encourage even greater water speeds, which drown people and livestock, carry off homes and flush away bridges."

"I was horrified to hear our Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Valli Moosa suggesting that the canalisation of a section of the Jukskei River was the answer to part of this problem. It is precisely the concrete and canalisation that has caused the urban flood waters to rage out of control in the first place. What we need instead are for wetlands to be restored, for rivers to have their slow meandering curves reinstated, and for as much concrete as possible to be removed, so that water can infiltrate into the ground where it was supposed to go in the first place."

'We need to take the settlements, the crops and the concrete out of the wetlands as fast as possible," Lindley warns. "What the recent floods illustrate so clearly is the cumulative effect of damage along water courses. When the RWP fights wetland degradation, people often respond with, 'Oh but it's only one little wetland'. Sure. But one little wetland, plus another little wetland, and another little wetland and some development in a floodplain results in turning Mozambique into an international disaster!"

Besides the tragic loss of life and infrastructure, South Africa loses millions of tons of topsoil when damaged river systems flood. "That brown muddy water is our 'lifeblood'. You cannot grow food in subsoil," Lindley points out. And in flushing our fertile soil out to sea, we cause further damage, this time to the estuaries where fish breed. Thus floods and silted rivers have a significant impact on commercial fish stocks. In nature, everything is connected and we are now being held accountable for our past blunders."

And the degradation would continue, but for organisations such as the Rennies Wetlands Project, which battle daily to protect and restore natural systems. The RWP is the only national non-government, non profit organisation in South Africa that works on wetlands outside protected areas. Most of South Africa's wetlands are on private land and the RWP works on the ground to rehabilitate as many of these as it can. In four short years, this tiny organisation supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA, and working on a shoestring budget has managed to:

Help raise R4,1 million for wetland rehabilitation. Assess the condition of over 23 000ha of wetlands and initiating rehabilitation in many of these. Train over 810 people from 55 organisations in wetland assessment and functioning. Get 4 full time wetland ecologists appointed to work for 4 different government departments (3 conservation agencies and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry). These 4 people have now started their own wetland conservation programmes. Change the definition of a wetland in the New Water Act from a broad, indefensible definition to a strict, unambiguous regulatory definition. Persuading the forestry industry to agree to the projects method of delineating wetlands, and determining the buffer distance from where thirsty alien tree plantations should be planted. Establish a state-of-the-art wetlands website with hot links to sites all over the world.

For further information, please contact David Lindley or Gayle Barichievy on +27.11.486.0938 or +27.83.222.9155 or e-mail Owen PR or visit Rennies Wetland Project website at http://www.psybergate.com/wetfix where you can access "Wetland Fix", a free 6-part, illustrated field guide on how to assess, manage and rehabilitate wetlands. Free basic wetland training materials. Our latest progress reports from around the country. Our newest press releases on wetland issues. Hot links to some of the most important and useful wetland websites from around the world - a must for wetland conservationists and environmental consultants.

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