A ‘reactive’ mandate for wetland ‘protection’ ? Really ?

14 July 2013

This wetland will need to be damaged before it can be saved (Photo: Bill Harding)

This wetland will need to be damaged before it can be saved (Photo: Bill Harding, agents details deleted)

Oddly, the mandate of the South African Department of the Environment – insofar as wetland protection is concerned, is reactive.  This means that a wetland has to be in the process of being damaged (= commencement of an illegal activity) before action can be taken!  Strange, senseless, but true!

I recently brought the case of a plot that is up for sale – and which is 100% wetland, part of a much larger system already intersected by a road and associated urban development – to the attention of the responsible authority, with the response that nothing can be done.  Perhaps there is an existing Record of Decision that has allowed the wetland to be lost, but I doubt it.  The wetland in question is at the head of a small streamline that feeds into an ecologically-important fish sanctuary system.  Although passing through a country village, the streamline and the wetland nodes along it support a variety of wildlife.

I deal with quite a few clients who have purchased a piece of land such as that shown above, have started building their house and are then served with an order to cease works because they have contravened the protections afforded to wetlands.  In some cases they end up owning a piece of land they cannot develop.  In most of these cases, the estate agent selling the plot would have known that wetlands are generally not developable or that the proximity of a wetland may constrain the building lines.  Secondly, the local authority may have mapped all the remaining wetlands in their jurisdiction and could have taken pro-active action to inform potential buyers of the limitations.  Regrettably this does not happen.

If we are serious about wetland protection, then a better plan to protect them needs to be put in place.  The existing reactive mandate is nonsense.

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