Wetlands are “ transitional land between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface, or land that is periodically covered by shallow water and which in normal circumstances support or would support vegetation that is typically adapted to saturated soils” (Republic of South Africa 1998: 9). Wetlands are also “Areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.” (Ramsar Convention 1971 in Barbier, Acreman and Knowler 1997: 1). These two definitions of wetlands point to the fact that wetlands are diverse ecosystems and can occur at different geographical areas. While the second definition is very broad, it also poses a challenge in wetlands delineation.
Wetlands are important ecosystems in the lives and wellbeing of both rural and urban communities around the world. Well-functioning wetlands are green infrastructure that mitigate disaster risks such as floods, droughts, storms, fires to name but a few. They also assist communities to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Besides, wetlands provide livelihoods for millions of people especially in the rural areas. The way wetlands are managed depend largely on the legal and institutional arrangements for wetlands management in the country or region. This article makes a critical evaluation on the effectiveness of policies and institutions involved in wetlands management in South Africa.
Wetlands management, protection and conservation find expression in many international agreements that include the Ramsar Convention of 1971, Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), Bonn Convention of 1979 (which came into force in 1983), Agenda 21 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development of 1992, World Summit on Sustainable Development of 2002. More recently wetlands also find central stage in international agreements like the Sendai Framework for Disaster Reduction (SFDR) 2015–2030, the Paris Peace Agreement on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Amstrong 2009; Ramsar Convention Secretariat 2010; Kidd 2011; Keevy 2012; Glazewski 2013; Russi et al. 2013; UNISDR 2015; IPCC 2015; UNDP, 2015).
In South Africa there is actually no wetland protection Act and many legislations that address wetland management in South Africa are haphazard and uncoordinated in their implementation (Kidd 2011; Glazewski 2013). The main legislations that mention wetland issues in South Africa include; the National Water Act (NWA) 36 of 1998, National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) 107 of 1998, Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (CARA) 43 of 1983, National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004, National Environmental Management Act: Protected Areas Act 57 of 2003, National Forest Act 84 of 1998, and National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999. The three main Acts which mention wetland management as part of their general mandate are the NWA, NEMA and CARA (Republic of South Africa 1983; Republic of South Africa 1998a, b).
In South Africa leading government departments with legal mandates on wetland issues include the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). In the past, each of these departments had a National Resources Management Programme (NRMPs), which included the Working for Water (WfWater) for DWS with the specific mandate to clear alien and invasive species while creating employment, Working for Wetlands (WfW) under DEAT with the mandate to rehabilitate and restore degraded wetlands while also creating employment and LandCare South Africa for DAFF, which dealt with rehabilitating agricultural land. However, recently these NRMPs have all been placed under the DEAT (now called DEA) under the Extended Public Works Programmes (EPWPs) (DEA 2015). Working on Fires (WoF) and Working for the Coast (WftC) has also been added to the list of the EPWPs and all five are popularly referred to as the “Working for Programmes” (Kotze 2000; Collins 2006; SANBI 2013; DEA 2015). Besides these National Departments and EPWPs, there are some NGOs whose activities relate to wetlands, like the Mondi Wetland Project (MWP) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). From this background information, one starts getting a sense of inherent coordination and accountability issues in the manner in which legal and institutional arrangement for wetland management are handled in South Africa.
About 50% of wetlands in South Africa have been degraded (Kotze 2000; Grundling 2012) and this is very worrying especially under the current conditions of increasing disaster risks exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Wetlands provide many valuable ecological services to local communities including those for mitigating and adapting to climate change (MA 2005; Collins 2006, Kotze 2012), but they are also very sensitive ecosystems. The wise and sustainable management of wetlands depend to a great extent on the effectiveness of the legal and institutional frameworks that are in place in a country (RCS 2010). In South Africa, there is a problem with the legal and institutional framework that guide wetlands management, hence many wetlands have been degraded or lost and the situation is continuing unabated. Two critical questions then are: How does the legal and institutional arrangement inform the sustainable management of wetlands in South Africa? Secondly, are wetlands sufficiently protected so that they can sustainably provide ecosystem services especially regulatory services which help to reduce disaster risks and adapt to climate change in South Africa? Answers to these two questions will provide policy makers with evidence to rethink and formulate more effective legal and institutional frameworks for wise and sustainable management of wetlands in South Africa as well as other countries facing similar problems.