R25 million spent to quietly drain a wetland

1 July 2014

Balamhlanga Vlei (Source: GoogleEarth).

Balamhlanga Vlei (Source: GoogleEarth).

The Balamhlanga Pan (Latitude: 27.4S / Longitude: 32.2E), a vlei-wetland northeast of Mkuze in KZN, adjacent to the Pongola River, has been curiously drained – or is in the process of being drained.  I say ‘curiously’ as the scarce information available about this incident does not suggest that approvals were granted for this apparent environmental injustice. A 16 June 2014 report on the website of the KZN Agricultural Union notes the concerns raised by the SA Wetland Society and others, follows a report on the incident published in Rapport of 14 June.  Yesterday (June 30th), Beeld and The Witness carried similar copy on the matter.

Drainage damage to the Balamhlanga Vlei (Source: Beeld)

View of the damage caused by deliberate drainage of the Balamhlanga Vlei – view towards the south (Source: Beeld, June 30th 2014)

Although the vlei is in a relatively remote part of the country, it is surprising that the (obvious) drainage has proceeded so far, apparently since February this year (see image published by Beeld) before the alarm bells were sounded.  If this project has indeed received the sanction of the authorities then we need to know the motivation as soon as possible.  If such a big wetland can be raped with impunity, what does this say about the protection of smaller systems?

Location of the Makhatini Flats (Source: AgBioForum)

Location of the Makhatini Flats (Source: AgBioForum)

If the indicated rumours are true, i.e. that this is part of an initiative to provide well-drained land on which to grow crops, then it is more than ironic that this has occurred in the Ramsar 2014 “Wetlands and Agriculture” year! The wetland is located on the Makhathini Flats – an area termed the “breadbasket of South Africa” and for which substantial agricultural growth plans , including genetically modified cotton, have been around since the early 2000s (see also here).  Contrary opinions have suggested that the choice of cotton may be misguided.

Contemporary analysis has revealed that recent global losses of wetlands, between 2007 and 2011, equates to an annual financial loss of %2.7 trillion per year! “Taking into account all marine and terrestrial land types – from coral reefs to wetlands to tropical forests—the value of ecosystem services has dropped by $20.2 trillion per year over this 14-year period”.

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