Moving towards a practical and pragmatic definition of wetlands…

29 September 2011

The term “wetland” means land which is transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems, where the water table is usually at or near the surface, or the land is periodically covered with shallow water, and which land in normal circumstances supports or would support vegetation typically adapted to life in saturated soil (wording as per the South African Water Act of 1998).

While workable, the definition of wetlands used in South Africa is a catch-all and does not provide anything near the level of specificity for different types of wetlands.  Additionally, it has allowed the inclusion of all sorts of non-wetland environments to be included, such as ornamental ponds, roadside drains and farm dams!  The latter situation has, ostensibly, arisen from a overly-purist, knee-jerk attempt to compensate for the massive historic loss of wetlands on a global scale.  This approach, stemming from a lack of skills in wetland assessment, devalues wetlands sensu strictu and is fraught with confusion.

The process of wetland assessment in South Africa is relatively basic and immature.  In the rush to create “tools” for wetland assessment, readily-available, “off-the-shelf” assessment and diagnostic tools, such as the USACE series, requiring very little amendment for local use, were shunned in favour of re-inventing this particular wheel. Proposals made a decade ago (2002) for an immediate move to a pan-regional categorization approach, the so-called Wetland (Regional) Assessment Protocol (WRAP) was ignored and remains so to this day.  The hierarchical WRAP approach was intended, using a team of 40 or more botanists and specialists, to create a tool that catered for specific nuances of wetland variation across the length and breadth of South Africa.  The potential for the WRAP approach is partially reflected in the strengths of the Australian FARWH protocol which was initiated post-2005.

An example from the 2002 WRAP proposal, a consortium of 40 regional specialists!

Wetlands are wetlands but they are not, by any means, all the same.  In other parts of the world we see very specific definitions for different types of wetlands, definitions that incorporate diagnostic criteria.  For example:

A “Wet Prairie Wetland” means a wetland in flat terrain that: (a) has less than 20% cover of shrubs and other woody plants, and (b) is not currently subject to annual or semi‐annual plowing, and (c) lacks surface water during most of a normal year, and (d) is dominated by characteristic native grasses which are listed as wetland indicators by wetland regulatory agencies.

In South Africa we still need to refine the basic definition so that inordinate amounts of time and money are not spent debating whether or not a man-made feature is or is not a wetland, or whether a blocked drain – which has resulted in pseudo wetland characteristics arising, merits the classification of the effect as a wetland.  In my mind, a more practical and pragmatic working definition of wetlands would be the SJCC example:

“Wetland” means an area that is inundated or saturated by surface water or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances does support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.  Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas. Wetlands do not include those artificial wetlands intentionally created from non-wetland sites, including but not limited to, irrigation and drainage ditches, grass‐lined swales, canals, detention facilities, wastewater treatment facilities, farm ponds, and landscape amenities, or those wetlands that were unintentionally created as a result of the construction of a road, street, or highway. Wetlands may include those artificial wetlands intentionally created from non-wetland areas to mitigate the conversion of wetlands.

The adoption of this type of wording would facilitate an immediate focus on the important, rather than what we have – under which all are important so, by implication, none are if we have to include the nonsensical stuff like drainage ditches.  It would also allow the development of working definitions for specific wetland types, both inter- and intra-region!  (see example below). It would also allow issues of size, viz. the size of a conservable ‘fragment’ toi be debated and evaluated.

Wetland Contiguous to Extensive Forestmeans a wetland that is contiguous to or is situated within a block or corridor of upland trees and shrubs whose canopy cover exceeds 70% and whose interrupted size exceeds 100 acres. If a wetland is separated from such an extensive wooded upland by paved roads or by an unwooded space wider than 100 feet, the wetland shall not be considered to meet this definition.

Comments and debate extremely welcome!

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