Today is World Wetlands Day.
Wetlands are areas where water plays the dominant role in determining plant, bird and animal life within that environment. There are many wetlands in the KZN Midlands and Drakensberg – the water factories of the province. Southern Africa’s wetlands are amongst the most diverse both physically and biologically of any in the world, yet we have lost an estimated 50% of our wetlands to urban and industrial development and agriculture.
Wetlands purify water, control floods, prevent soil erosion, support a rich species diversity and provide food, raw materials and tourism opportunities. Wetlands store 30% of all the carbon in the world. This is twice as much as the amount of carbon in rainforests. Worldwide, wetlands provide R500 billion in eco-system services annually.
uMngeni Vlei Nature Reserve, where the uMngeni river rises, is a 600ha wetland situated in the Impendle Municipal district between Dargle and Fort Nottingham.
The RAMSAR Secretariat has designated the uMngeni Vlei Nature Reserve located at about 1,840m asl in the Drakensberg Alpine Centre biodiversity hotspot, as its 21st Wetland of International Importance. The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
“We are very pleased that our special place in the Midlands has achieved Ramsar Status. This will help to protect the source of the uMngeni River, which provides a continuous supply of clean water to people living here and all the way down to the coast.” says Judy Bell, Environmental Consultant. “We cherish this site and hope this international recognition will inspire everyone to protect our essential ecosystems with more vigour, so that we never have to choose between conserving these life-support systems and development.”
uMngeni Nature Reserve (958ha) which surrounds the Vlei protects important ecosystems including Drakensberg Foothill Moist Grassland, Eastern Temperate Wetlands and Drakensberg Wetland vegetation and Highland Sourveld grasslands. These contain endemic and threatened fauna and flora including Merwilla natalensis, Kniphofia brachystachya, Kniphofia breviflora, Oribi antelope, all three crane species, ground hornbill and ground woodpecker, yellow breasted pipit and blue swallow.
About 50% of South Africa’s wetlands have already been destroyed or converted through draining, the building of dams, incorrect burning and overgrazing, invasive alien species, waste disposal, water abstraction, agriculture, urban development and inappropriate land management. Nowadays, the value of the eco-system goods and services they provide humanity is being increasingly understood. A healthy wetland has richer species diversity than other eco-systems and plays an important role in traditional Africa culture. They store water and release it at a steady rate through the year and they also have the ability to clean polluted water, are havens for wildlife, provide useful materials and offer fishing, recreation and tourism opportunities too. Very often, wetlands are the birth place of rivers and streams, as in the case of uMngeni Vlei. They also help protect people and homes from floods by slowing down the flow of water through the landscape. Small wonder then, that there are many efforts in process to protect and restore them.
Vaughan Koopman, wetland ecologist comments “At least 4.5 million people live in the catchment of the uMngeni system and 80% of the KwaZulu Natal GDP is produced in this catchment.”
Fortunately, uMngeni Vlei has not been transformed and is still able to fulfil the role of a well-functioning wetland supplying water to the uMngeni River and, in turn, to everyone who lives and works in the catchment. The formal protection of this vlei is a big step forward in conserving water resources for all the species which rely on it.
RAMSAR designation will ensure long-term commitment from the landowners to maintaining the wetland’s health and help Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to manage the protected area. We all need to reflect on the benefits that wetlands provide and do all we can to ensure our water resources are healthy and well cared for.