#01 2023

World Wetlands Day 2023: Ensuring science impact through science engagement

By Sue Van Rensburg, Gugulethu Tshabalala, Charlene Russell, Abri de Buys & Dr Gregor Feig

Wetlands, food security and livelihoods are closely intertwined within the Umhlabuyalingana Local Municipality in the north-eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal. This is an area that contains numerous wetlands such as pans and swamp systems, as well as some of the few natural lakes in South Africa, including the Kosi Bay system and Lake Sibaya.

The wetlands provide numerous ecosystem services to the human and biotic communities in the area. These include materials for livelihoods, crafts, construction as well as other traditional uses. The wetland areas are often used for growing food such as banana and taro (or mudumbi), a root vegetable. Lands outside of wetlands are sandy, nutrient poor and not suitable for food production.

The water level in most of these wetlands is linked to the groundwater system. Changes in the water level of the wetlands indicate changes in the groundwater resource. This is also true for Lake Sibaya, the largest freshwater lake (wetland) in South Africa, which is a RAMSAR site and part of the scenically beautiful iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage site.

The area is unique as it is a groundwater-driven system with no inflows to the wetlands or lakes from surface rivers or streams. With no other sources of water flowing into the region, people and wetland ecosystems are entirely dependent on this groundwater resource which can only be recharged with localised rainfall. Thus, changes in rainfall pattern are likely to have significant implications for the wetlands and the people who depend on them.

Barring this summer, below-average rainfall was generally experienced during the past two decades, pushing the system to record low water levels with a precipitous drop in lake and groundwater levels. In addition to this, the historically sparsely inhabited region has experienced escalating changes in land use and land cover since the late 1950s, with the advent of commercial forestry in the area. Changes in land use and land cover affect the groundwater resource. The exotic Eucalyptus plantations in particular, which have increased dramatically over the past decade, have been shown to have a significant negative impact on the water table.

Wetland areas planted with banana and other vegetables (Photo: Sue J. Van Rensburg)

Extensive Eucalyptus plantations close to and even within (now dry) wetland areas (Photo: Sue J. Van Rensburg)

EFTEON landscape

When SAEON sought permission from the traditional councils to work in the area in 2016, we were approached by the Lake Sibaya Conservation and Development Trust based within the Mabasa Traditional Council area with a view to establish a collaboration. The council members were concerned about land and wetland degradation in the area and wanted to work closely with us on these issues.

When the opportunity to propose this area as an Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) landscape was presented, it was strongly supported by the Mabasa Traditional Council, with Inkosi K.T.H. Nxumalo offering to host the landscape. As a closely linked social ecological system in a subtropical climate transition region, the submission was successful.

An important component in rolling out the EFTEON landscape activities to ensure impact, is working closely with communities on the ground. In the proposal stage, a site was jointly selected with council members. The core research site selected was within a typical Maputaland Grassland within the Indian Ocean Coastal Belt biome for the planned deployment of an eddy covariance tower as part of the EFTEON instrument array. The area was chosen with the assurance that the land use – as a community designated cattle grazing area – will not change.

Plans for the installation of the tower on which the eddy covariance systems would be deployed, were put in motion late last year. As soon as the tower was erected, some people were asking if we were bringing cell phone coverage to the area and were very excited, whereas others had concerns about the purpose of the tower and security, as the area is important for cattle-grazing.

World Wetlands Day as a platform for engagement

In previous World Wetlands Day events that we participated in, the focus was on higher-ranking council members. It was now time to spread the message about the programme deep into the community in preparation for the deployment of the actual eddy covariance equipment. We were thus grateful when the Lake Sibaya Conservation and Development Trust invited us to participate in their annual World Wetlands Day event, where the target participants included the Nduna and amapoiza (messengers) from the village of KwaMbombe where the tower deployment is taking place.

We were asked to present a general overview of our work in the area, explaining its uniqueness, and the land use and climate change impacts in the region. From our side we wanted to make the event more interactive, and loadshedding spurred us to find activities we could do in the absence of power. For this we needed the dynamic expertise and creativity of GroundTruth’s Charlene Russell and Gugulethu Tshabalala and we called on them to assist us.

Interactive participation can be challenging within rural communities as it goes against convention. As the intention was knowledge exchange across all groups represented, we asked permission for their indulgence, which was duly granted, albeit with some trepidation. The elders in the community have a deep knowledge of the region, and how it has changed over the years. We wanted to capture this and ensure intergenerational knowledge transfer, so that younger participants could gain an understanding of what the system was like in the past and how it has changed.

After dividing the participants randomly into four groups, the first task was for the eldest members in the group to describe to the youngest what the area was like when they were young, what they enjoyed most about it or enjoyed doing, and how things have changed. The youngest member from each group needed to capture these sentiments and report back to the workshop participants.

As Gugulethu explains: “It was the first time I celebrated World Wetlands Day. In the first activity, the older generation shared what the area was like for them growing up, and how much it has changed. As a facilitator, this was a rich and informative session as I learned a lot about the history of Lake Sibaya and recognised how drastically the area has changed to date.”

Gugulethu Tshabalala from GroundTruth (centre) and SAEON’s Siphiwe Mfeka (right) capturing report backs (Photo: Ruby Head)

Gugulethu demonstrating how wetlands hold water and what happens if they become degraded (Photo: Ruby Head)

Responses included the following: “In the past there was a lot of rain, and we could harvest more crops”; “there were more indigenous trees and fewer exotic trees”; “the winter season was longer (it is hotter now”); “we enjoyed fishing, more grazing land, sharing food and lots of rain”.

People reported that they enjoyed growing their own food and eating wild fruits from indigenous plants. Changes listed included a big increase in the number of people and lots of bush encroachment, which have resulted in less grazing land.

One group noted there were fewer birds now than in the past and indigenous trees do not bear as much fruit as they used to. Another group added that they have seen an increase in poverty in the area as people do not grow their own food as they used too. Common responses were that the area was more open in the past, with more water and wetlands and fewer droughts.

After this icebreaker, the four groups rotated through a series of four activity “stations” based at four tables distributed across the venue. Each group was given about 20–25 minutes at each table before moving to the next.

Gugulethu’s table focused on environmental degradation, where she discussed with the various groups how the wetland functions and how land use impacts such as an artificial drainage and mining can impact the wetland. She noted, “the groups were very impressive in their discussions as some participants acknowledged that development was important but not at the cost of the wetlands they rely on. One participant suggested that eco-tourism was one avenue through which jobs could be created, while community members could still use the environment as it forms a crucial part of their livelihoods. The group also pointed out that there were some areas around Sodwana where, due to the low levels of rainfall recently experienced, various developments have taken place on the land which were at risk of flooding if high rainfalls were experienced. I was encouraged to see their genuine appreciation of wetlands. They recognised that not all developments were beneficial, especially around precious natural resources such as wetlands.”

At Sue’s table, participants looked at change over time. The concept of repeat photography was explained, using some examples of areas they would all be familiar with, such as Mbazwana town and surrounding areas in 1967, versus today.

Mbazwana in 1967 (left) and today (right)

Mseleni stream on the western arm of Lake Sibaya in 1942 (left) and now (right)

Once the participants grasped that these were the same areas but with the photos captured at different times, we presented them with a set of four pairs of matching photos, all taken within their village and the grazing area where the tower will be, turned upside down and mixed up on the table. Each participant then had to pick one photo and quickly find the person with a matching photo of the same area but for a different period. This gave rise to a lot of discussion, naming wetland areas that were full of water in the past in the old photos, which some of the younger participants had never heard of.

Once all the pairs were matched, they discussed what changes they could identify between the early and current day photos. Seeing the increase in plantations and woody vegetation and the drop in the water table over time, we moved to discussing the impact of different land uses on the systems using a simple tub of water and sponges to demonstrate the impact of the exotic trees on the water table and wetlands.

SAEON technician Siphiwe Mfeka facilitating discussions on catchment management and what participants identified as good and bad practices for their situation (Photo: Ruby Head)

Siphiwe used the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) Windows on our World poster to discuss positive and negative land use practices and their impact on water resources (Photo: Sue J Van Rensburg)

Participants raised their concerns about the pollution of the water system. Wetland farming practices were discussed in relation to their impact on the water system and on the water in their area. Solutions relating to responsible use and restoration of wetlands were put forward.

Charlene Russell from GroundTruth facilitated a climate change game that revved up the competitive spirit of the groups. Participants matched cards depicting various climate change topics, then were asked to choose one or two pictures that had special significance for them and explain the picture to the group. This led to discussions about the spread of malaria, the importance of sustainable farming practices, the impact of climate change on the ocean and how most people in the community were living a life of little impact compared with those that had a larger footprint living in the cities.

For Charlene and Sue, who are not fluent in isiZulu (sizofunda isiZulu), it was great to see how the younger members of the group rallied to translate information and how the older group members were able to share their deep knowledge and explain things to these younger participants which were then relayed back to us, inculcating knowledge of change over time. Everyone had a useful role to play in creating a common picture of change over time.

We concluded the day’s events by bringing all the participants together and allowing them to share their questions or insights with us. We ended with Siphiwe again explaining the tower and the instruments we will be putting on it and what they measure.

Charlene Russell from GroundTruth facilitated a climate change game (Photo: Ruby Head)

Siphiwe explaining the eddy covariance system, what it looks like, what it is measuring and why SAEON scientists are interested in these measurements (Photo: Sue J Van Rensburg)

A major achievement for the day was that many of the participants who had been suspicious of the tower and our activities now embraced the idea. They had a much clearer understanding of the intention and purpose of the tower, and a better knowledge of climate change impacts in the area and the functioning of the groundwater system.

We knew the day was a success when a successful local farmer who had initially been concerned about the tower, fetched some home-grown watermelons after the event. These were cut up and served, joining the diversity of people represented at the workshop into one happy community, sharing the joys of the delicious gift which resulted in giggles and sticky chins all round. Huge thanks to the GroundTruth team for their inspiration and creativity and for making the day such a success. Thanks also to volunteer Ruby Head for time keeping and taking photos.

EFTEON technicians Jeremy Moonsamy and Abri de Buys installing the integrated sonic anemometer and gas analyser (Photo: Siphiwe Mfeka)

With the installation complete,  data collection and site maintenance can begin (Photo: Abri de Buys)


With this groundwork in place, the combined EFTEON and SAEON technical team were given the go-ahead for deployment of the eddy covariance instruments. After some office testing by Grasslands Node technician, Kent Lawrence, and scientist, Dr Michele Toucher, EFTEON technicians Jeremy Moonsamy and Abri de Buys, along with Grasslands Node technician Siphiwe Mfeka and assistant Simiso Nxumalo from the local community, were in the field the very next week installing the new instruments on the tower.

The first day was spent installing soil sensors (moisture, temperature and heat flux), which involved digging trenches in conditions above 30 degrees Celsius and with high humidity following the good rains experienced days before. Day two was spent installing the all-important sonic anemometer and gas analyser that will provide data on CO2 and water vapour fluxes (movements) between the atmosphere and land surface. Radiation sensors were also installed to allow us to account for what happens to solar energy. Additionally, basic meteorological variables are measured at the site using temperature, humidity, wind and rainfall sensors. All the data are transmitted to SAEON’s server via a cellular modem and antenna.

In between intense focus on getting the installations correct and staying hydrated and safe while working at heights, engagement with locals continued as many passers-by stopped to enquire what we were up to. Siphiwe again played a vital role explaining to lalapalm harvesters what the system does, sharing knowledge and answering questions. This interaction was a learning experience for the EFTEON technicians who had previously not had much experience working in this landscape. We were reminded that while handling complicated, expensive instruments may be second nature to us, many people do not know what they are and are suspicious of them unless extensive work of the type described above is/has been done. For this we are thankful to the SAEON Grasslands Node and GroundTruth teams.

Sue concludes: “In line with the National Research Foundation’s impact framework, we strive to ensure that the work we do gains traction not only in the international academic space, but in the lives of the people living in the landscapes in which we operate. Yes, it takes time and many, many interactions to spread the message of science and invite people to join on our science journey, but for me this is the most rewarding part of what we do. It is about understanding change as a collective so that we can work together to build awareness and resilience, especially in vulnerable communities. That is why we are happy this area is now an EFTEON landscape, and we look forward to more collaboration moving forward.”

“We knew the day was a success when a successful local farmer who had initially been concerned about the tower, fetched some home-grown watermelons after the event. These were cut up and served, joining the diversity of people represented at the workshop into one happy community.” – Sue Van Rensburg

(Photo: Charlene Russell)