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Home Freshwater Resources Conference Programme


David Lindley,
National Co-ordinator - Rennies Wetlands Project

Wetlands – the water managers

Water is the essence of life. It is South Africa’s scarcest resource. Few people are aware that at current supply and demand, South Africa will run out of water by 2030.

Without sufficient water we cannot grow enough crops and support industrial growth, or develop a growing tourism industry. Our economy is therefore totally dependant on a continual supply of water of sufficient quality and quantity.

The majority of South Africans do not have access to potable water. They therefore rely on streams, rivers, marshes and other types of wetlands to supply them with enough clean water to satisfy their needs. At least 650 South Africans die a day from diarrhea, a disease mostly caused by drinking contaminated water. This is equal to a jumbo jet crashing with no survivors, every day of the year. Economically, the total annual costs of hospitalising and treating patients with diarrhea are estimated at R 15 billion. This is equivalent to South Africa’s 3% annual economic growth rate.

Wetlands manage water and can help alleviate South Africa’s looming water shortage crisis. Wetlands purify water, and can help save lives.

Wetlands protect water. They purify water, store and regulate streamflow, ensure water in drought periods, recharge groundwater, control soil erosion and reduce the risk of flooding. They perform all these vital functions for free – and as a bonus, wetlands conserve biodiversity. Yet wetlands are one of the most threatened habitats in the world today. It is estimated that over 50% of South Africa’s wetlands have already been destroyed. We cannot afford to lose one more wetland!


Wetlands - what are they

    • their importance
    • the problems
    • the future


  • Water is the essence of life = lives + money
  • It is South Africa’s scarcest natural resource. We will run out of water by 2030.
  • Insufficient water equals:
    • Agriculture
    • Industry
    • Mining
    • Tourism
    • Death – human + animal + plant
  • Wetlands manage water BUT an estimated 50% have been destroyed.
  • We MUST manage our wetlands!


What are the Wetlands

  • Soils are temporarily, seasonally or permanently saturated with water
  • Plants & animals adapted to live in waterlogged conditions

Types of Wetlands

  • Seeps, sponges & springs- mountains
  • Marshes, floodplains, pans, lakes, dams- midlands
  • Swamp forests, estuaries and coral reefs- coast
  • Streambanks- All linking


For their functions & values!

  • Water purification
    • Sediment deposition
    • Photo degradation of pollutants
    • Denitrification and phosphorus removal
    • Mineral uptake by vegetation
    • Heavy metal retention
    • Decompose organic pollutants
  • Streamflow regulation
    • Prevent floods
    • Storing water & slowly releasing it
  • Groundwater recharge & discharge
  • Erosion control by wetland vegetation
    • Dissipating flood energy
    • Trapping & binding sediment
    • Quick recovery from flood damage
  • Protect wildlife & maintain biodiversity
  • Biochemical recycling – carbon sinks
  • High stock grazing potential
  • Producers of fibre for handicraft and construction
  • Recreation and education


Nature, the most respected journal in the world reported in its May 1997 issue that the estimated annual value of the worlds ecosystem services and natural capital is US$ 33 trillion. This is 1.8 times the global Gross Domestic Product which is estimated to be US$18 trillion annually.

For terrestrial ecosystems wetlands were valued at US$ 4.9 trillion annually, or almost 38% of the total value of all terrestrial ecosystems.



Problems – in the wetland

  • Filling in & drainage of wetlands for agricultural, industrial, residential and commercial developments
  • Poorly managed grazing & burning = headcut erosion and river bank erosion
  • Alien invaders and timber production
  • Dams
  • Effluent pollution from cities
  • Mining
  • Unsustainable water abstraction
  • Chronic lack of wetland workers!


Promote the wise use & sustainable management of wetlands

To do this we must develop:

  • Capacity building programme
  • Wetland conservation Act
  • Wetland inventory
  • Monitor wetland losses and gains
  • National wetland conservation programme involving all relevant government departments, wetland owners, NGO’s and public in practical wetland conservation

Rennies Wetlands Project at the coal face

The Rennies Wetland Project is the only project in South Africa working nationally outside declared nature reserves (where most of South Africa’s wetland are) on this crucial issue, both at grassroots and political decision making levels. The Rennies Wetlands Project promotes the wise use and sustainable management of wetlands to wetland owners and key decision makers on a national basis. To achieve this the Project has four programmes:

Publicity and Awareness Programme – which is aimed at making people aware of the crucial importance of wetlands by producing as much publicity on wetlands and the Project. In the past 2 years, the Project has had 134 articles in national and regional newspapers and magazines, 21 minutes on TV and 5 1/2 hours on radio. All this publicity was gained for free.

Capacity Building Programme – to educate provincial conservation and agricultural extension officers, wetland managers and volunteers to better understand the dynamics of wetlands, their management and the rehabilitation of those degraded. In the past two years, 253 people from 44 different organisations have attended 28 courses that have been run over a period of 114 days. The Project now works with many of these people who, as a result of the courses, now involve wetland conservation in their work.

Fieldwork Programme – this is where the practical wetland work occurs. Wetlands in specific catchments are identified from aerial photos, field surveys assessing their conditions are then conducted, and rehabilitation is undertaken in those that have been significantly degraded. In the past 2 years, the Project has initiated ongoing wetland conservation activities such as this in 11 areas around the country outside declared reserves, surveyed 403 km of wetlands in 7 provinces, and rehabilitation is beginning in some of these wetlands. The Project has been one of the key organisations involved in raising a total of R1.75 million for the rehabilitation of wetlands in 5 of these areas.

Lobbying Programme – aimed at influencing key decision makers to realise the importance of wetlands, and therefore include them in government departmental work, policy development and planning. In the past 2 years, the Project has been working closely with the National Department of Agriculture directorate of Resource Conservation, department of Water Affairs and Forestry, the Working for Water Project, and the various provincial nature conservation agencies. As a result the Working for Water project has now taken a decision to include wetland rehabilitation in their programme, Mpumalanga Parks Board has appointed one full time wetland conservation officer to work only outside reserves, and Free State Nature Conservation will soon be following suit. Mondi, Sappi, and Safcol – the 3 largest private forestry companies in South Africa have decided to delineate wetlands according to the Project’s recommended delineation procedure, and have also agreed to make a concerted effort with the project to better manage the wetlands on their properties.

As the Project has a limited number of staff, it works in partnership with existing structures in the government and private sectors such as nature conservation and agricultural extension services, wetland managers, and any other volunteers who have an interest in wetlands. The Project operates off a very modest budget of US$ 50 000, employs a full time national co-ordinator David Lindley, who is a conservation ecologist with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, his part time office assistant Gayle Barichievy and 4 part time field assistants (students).

Project history

The project was started in 1991 by the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Wildlife and Environment Society, Rennies, the Natal Parks Board, the Mazda Wildlife Fund and South African Breweries. The first 5 year phase was managed by the Natal Parks Board and operated mainly in KwaZulu-Natal. The aim was to raise the awareness of wetland owners and the public to wetlands. Workshops, farmers day talks and practical advice was provided to farmers, and agriculture/nature conservation extension officers.

The second 5 year phase of the Project began in April 1996 and is managed by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa. This phase operates nationally promoting the wise use and rehabilitation of South Africa's freshwater wetlands. It is mainly directed at wetland owners/managers, conservation/agricultural extension officers and key governmental decision makers.

"Wetland Fix" – for a net gain of wetlands

Wetland Fix is probably the most important conservation series to be published this year in South Africa. It took the Rennies Wetlands Project 4 years, and many discussions with farmers and agriculture/conservation extension officers in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Free State and Mpumalanga to gather the information which makes up the field guides. Wetland Fix is South first illustrated set of field guides on the assessment, management and rehabilitation of wetlands. These practical guides are indispensable for wetland owners, agriculture and conservation extension officers, and anybody who cares about wetlands. The series contains practical information, mostly in illustrated, step-by-step format. The series includes:

Part 1 – Introduction and wetland assessment

Part 2 – Wetland burning and grazing guide

Part 3 – Streambank stabilisation and channel plug development

Part 4 – Indigenous plants suitable for rehabilitation

Part 5 – Spring protection guide

Part 6 – Alien plant control guide