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ALEXANDER BAY, South Africa, Sep 28 2009 (IPS) - Much of the internationally-recognised wetland surrounding the Orange River mouth has lost its rich green colour. Situated close to long-standing diamond mining operations, the river's mouth has been treated with environmental disregard for decades.
In the background, mine dumps hulk over the scene. Later, when the wind begins to blow, clouds of sand and dust will cast a grimy haze over the area.
The mouth of the Orange River, with South Africa on the south side and Namibia on the north, is the end point of a river that originates 2,300 kilometres away in Lesotho. The estuary provides a variety of habitats and supports large numbers of birds, who use it for feeding and breeding on their migration routes.
Covering 500 hectares, the South African side of the river was declared a Ramsar site in 1991, one of 1,855 wetlands worldwide recognised as being of international importance.
A meeting held in 1971 in the town of Ramsar, Iran, resulted in the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that commits its member countries to maintain the ecological character of significant wetlands.
Restoring the southern marshes is given additional urgency by a successful land claim by the Richtersveld community. The community has identified the mouth area as having eco-tourism potential if successful rehabilitation can take place.
But undoing environmental degradation requires managing the estuary of a heavily dammed river system that provides water to South Africa’s industrial and agricultural sector.
The river is the lifeblood of industrial, agriculture and domestic users along its length; sophisticated transfer systems supply water consumers far from its banks.
Of the main users of water, irrigation uses 47 percent of water in the basin, while urban and industrial users account for 25 percent.
Dewald Badenhorst, the deputy director for protected areas in the Northern Cape conservation department, said historically the main reasons for the deterioration of the wetlands were adjacent diamond mining activities, large volumes of dust and nearby oxidation ponds.
The construction of a raised causeway across the salt marshes in the 1960s to allow for beach access cut the wetlands into sections, preventing natural water flows.
Further upstream, a series of dams constructed from the 1960s onwards reduced the amount of water reaching the mouth.
A proposal to proclaim the area a provincial protected area acknowledges that many of the changes to the mouth region are irreversible, but that some aspects can be addressed. For instance, Badenhorst says as much as possible of the causeway will be removed, to enable water flow back to marshland areas.
Carmen Cloete, the secretary of the Richtersveld Community Property Association (CPA), which represents 3,200 members who settled a land claim with the government in 2007 under the Land Restitution Act, said the CPA was on an advisory committee dealing with rehabilitation.
She said the land claimants were a "relatively poor community" who relied on jobs in mining, guest houses and parks in the area.
Cloete said the community had a land use plan for all land under the restitution deal, which included the development of the Orange River mouth for tourism.
"My opinion is that the government must look at the area and rehabilitate it so we can use it for our economic benefit. If it is well rehabilitated then it can create work and we can see there can be a balance between mining and the mouth."
But to fulfil the area's tourism potential, important constraints will have to be overcome.
The region already hosts established eco-tourist attractions in the Richtersveld National Park and the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. Further potential has been identified based on the desert, mountain and ocean scenery, as well as the bird life hosted in the estuary, but a major marketing campaign would have to be mounted.
Other constraints, according to the provincial proposal, are a lack of infrastructure and services for tourists in terms of accommodation, restaurants, curio shops, tours and trails.
The rehabilitation efforts acknowledge that due to the establishment of large upstream dams the natural flow of the river will never be restored.
But because South Africa is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, it has an obligation to ensure that the ecological integrity of the mouth is maintained through environmental flow requirements. However, large dams upstream have irrevocably altered the flow and there is no accurate gauging of how much water actually reaches the mouth.
Badenhorst said policies and strategies for agreeing and implementing required environmental flows should be developed and that a detailed study to improve understanding of environmental water requirements of the river and estuary was required.
Peter Pyke, a technical task team member for the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM), says that a broad basin-wide study to determine flow requirements is under way which would address this issue and if necessary allow for water to be allocated in order to fulfill environmental flow requirements.
Even once this is done, if additional water is released into the river, managing flow requirements is problematic because the nearest dam from which water can be released is the Vanderkloof Dam, 1,400 kilometres away. This makes it difficult to manage flow conditions because water released from the dam has spread out by the time it reaches the mouth.
With rehabilitation plans going ahead, stakeholders accept that there are no quick fixes.
A development plan prepared for the area says the first 10 years should be considered as a rehabilitation and establishment phase, with history in other areas of South Africa showing that it took 20 and 30 years to establish a conservation area or reserve.
"It will take a lifetime," said Klaas van Zyl, the future reserve manager for the area, "All we can do is open up the channels (through the causeway) and then let nature take its course."
*This article is the second in a special series on the Orange-Senqu River.
This story includes downloadable print-quality images -- Copyright IPS, to be used exclusively with this story.
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