#01 2022

SAEON’s key role in the long-term conservation of wetland ecosystems

By Professor Tommy Bornman, acting MD, SAEON

Welcome to the first SAEON e-newsletter of 2022.

World Wetlands Day

Each year we celebrate World Wetlands Day on 2 February to mark the date of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971. The theme for this years’ World Wetlands Day is “Action for People and Nature” – to highlight the importance of actions that ensure that our precious wetlands are conserved and sustainably used. In this month’s newsletter you can read more about how SAEON celebrated our diverse wetlands with a group of enthusiastic high school learners.

South Africa is a water scarce country and ranks as one of the 30 driest countries in the world. Wetlands are therefore unsurprisingly the most threatened ecosystem in South Africa despite the range of ecosystem goods and services they provide. To manage wetlands effectively, it is important to understand the ecological functioning of the catchment ecosystems around them to ensure adequate protection that will allow water to enter the rivers and recharge groundwater resources.

SAEON has an established and growing network of long-term environmental observation sites, many located in natural resource management priority areas such as catchments, which provide data to establish environmental baselines against which to assess the impact of degradation, climate change and management interventions on ecosystem services. Long-term observation of wetlands from the catchments, through the streams and rivers, to the estuaries at the coast has always been one of SAEON’s main themes that cut across all its nodes and research infrastructures.

South Africa currently has 27 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites), with a combined surface area of 571 089 hectares. However, the 27 Ramsar Sites are a small fraction of the approximately 300 000 remaining wetlands in South Africa, and the vast majority of these are polluted. Wetlands play an important role in removing toxic substances and sediment from the water, while also improving downstream water quality and the overall health of communities. The article on the sequestration of organophosphate pesticides by common reeds highlights the important role of wetland plants in phytoremediation of polluted water and sediment.

Location of the 10 SAEON/DFFE-NRM study sites

Orange River Mouth wetland rehabilitation efforts following this transboundary Ramsar Site being placed on the Montreux record (Photo: Tommy Bornman)

Natural resource management

SAEON has in recent years partnered with the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s Natural Resource Management (DFFE-NRM) to evaluate SAEON’s long-term data in the context of natural resource management, not only to assess the impact of drivers of global change such as alien invasive species and land use (or misuse), but also the effectiveness of interventions (Working for Water, Working for Ecosystems and Working for Wetlands programmes) to reverse degradation of natural capital. The project focuses on ten ecosystems across five provinces, and include the Cape Peninsula, Jonkershoek, Agulhas Plain, Kromme catchments and estuary, Kouga/Baviaanskloof and Gamtoos Estuary, Cathedral Peak, Maputaland Coastal Floodplain, Craigieburn wetland rehabilitation site, Mariepskop plantation rehabilitation and Mthimkhulu bush clearing trial. The article on hydrological fog use by catchment plants contributes to our understanding of water use in one of these catchment study sites.

All the outstanding work being conducted by SAEON scientists needs to be supported by science engagement and outreach activities to ensure the community is aware of the value and benefits of wetlands and that we continue to collaborate with these communities to co-create a management strategy that will ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of these valuable ecosystems.

Wishing you an enjoyable read.

Wetlands provide important ecosystems goods and services (Photo: Tommy Bornman)