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Safeguarding Africa’s Wetlands a Daunting Task

Africa’s wetland areas are experiencing immense pressure from commercial development and agriculture, settlements, excessive exploitation by local communities and improperly-planned development activities. Credit: Creative Commons CC0

HARARE, Mar 12 2015 (IPS) - African wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the continent, covering more than 131 million hectares, according to the Senegalese-based Wetlands International Africa (WIA).

Yet, despite their importance and value, wetland areas are experiencing immense pressure across the continent. Commercial development ranks as the major threat for the draining of wetlands, including for tourism facilities and agriculture, where hundreds of thousands of hectares of wetlands have been drained.

Other threats to Africa’s wetlands are commercial agriculture, settlements, excessive exploitation by local communities and improperly-planned development activities. The prospect of immense profits from recently discovered oil, coal and gas deposits has also led to an increase in on-and offshore exploration and mining in sensitive ecological areas.

Commercial development ranks as the major threat for the draining of [Africa’s] wetlands, including for tourism facilities and agriculture … Other threats are commercial agriculture, settlements, excessive exploitation by local communities and improperly-planned development activities

In Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, for example, wetlands and estuaries coincide with fossil fuel deposits and related infrastructure developments.

In northern Kenya, port developments in Lamu are set to take place in the West Indian Ocean Rim’s most important mangrove area and fisheries breeding ground.

In KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape of South Africa, heavy mineral sands are located in important dune forest ecosystems, and gas is being prospected for in the water-scarce and ecologically unique Karoo.

In East Africa, oil discoveries have been made in the tropical Congo Basin rain forest and the Virunga National Park – a world heritage site and a wetland recognised under the Ramsar Convention.

The Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of Africa’s most important wetlands and designated as the 1,000th world heritage site by UNESCO, has been home to many threatened species and the main water source of regional wildlife in Southern Africa. Yet it is shrinking due to drier climate, increased grazing and growing pressure from tourism.

“This delta is a true oasis in the middle of the bone-dry Kalahari Sand Basin, a rare untouched wilderness that’s been preserved by decades of border and civil wars in the Angolan catchment,” said National Geographic explorer Steve Boyes in an interview. “Many people along the Okavango River live like communities did some 400 years ago – and from them I think we can learn a lot about how to be better stewards of the natural world.”

Boyes calculated the abundance of life in the delta: more than 530 bird species, thousands of plant species, 160 different mammals, 155 reptiles, scores of frogs and countless insects.

“Everywhere you look you find life. We surveyed bats and we found 17 species in three days. We started looking for praying mantises and found 90 different species,” he said.

A recent survey by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the environmentalist group BirdLife Botswana concluded that that the wetland’s historical zones of dense reed beds and water fig islands were largely destroyed by hydrological changes and fire. Bush fires and a high grazing pressure further reduced the natural shores of the Okavango Delta.

Studies by BirdLife Botswana also showed that the slaty egret, a vulnerable water bird living only in Southern Africa, with its main breeding grounds in the wetlands of Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana’s Okavango Delta, is now estimated to have a total population of only about 4,000 birds.

The egret, which is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable, seems to be losing its main breeding sites in the Okavango.

Environmentalists hope that they can still save the wetland, and pin their hopes on a “Slaty Egret Action Plan” which will be used by the Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, BirdLife and other environment stakeholders to guarantee the survival of the Okavango Delta as a safe haven for the birds.

In a further step to save the wetlands, the Botswana government announced this month that from now on, seekers of mobile safari licences would be prohibited from operating in the Okavango Delta because the area in now congested.

The Botswana Guides Association, which represents many of the mobile safaris, is threatening to appeal.

Another example of the devastation of major wetlands occurred in Nigeria with pollution of farmlands linked to the Shell oil company.  The Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project, an independent team of scientists from Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States, has characterised the Niger Delta as “one of the world’s most severely petroleum-impacted ecosystems.”

In 2013, a Dutch court found the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell culpable for the pollution of farmlands at Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom state in the coastal south of the country.

The Niger Delta is Africa’s largest delta, covering some 7,000 square kilometres – one-third of which is made up of wetlands. It contains the largest mangrove forest in the world.

Assisted by environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, the court ruling was a victory for the communities in the Niger Delta after years of struggle against the oil company dating back 40 years, although the clean-up still has far to go.

“Destruction of wetlands is prevalent in almost all countries in Africa because the driving factor is the same – population pressure – many mouths to feed, ignorance about the role wetlands in playing in the ecosystem, lack of policies, laws and institutional framework to protect wetlands and in cases where these exist, they are hardly enforced,” John Owino, Programme Officer for Water and Wetlands with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  told IPS from his base in Nairobi, Kenya.

Owino said that the future of African wetlands lies in stronger political will to protect them, based on sound wetland policies and encouragement for community participation in their management, which is lacking in many African countries.

But very few African governments have specific national policies on wetlands and are influenced by policies from different sectors such as agriculture, national resources and energy.

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris   

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  • Russell Galt

    A very well written and informative article. Long live Africa’s wetlands.

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