Environment
Wednesday, 06 February 2013 14:49

Managing our most valuable resources

Website: Ecosystems play a significant role in economic and social development, especially in countries like South Africa.

Ecosystems are dynamic collections of plants, animals and micro-organisms interacting with each other and their environment. Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from these ecosystems. Human survival and well-being depend utterly on these ecosystem services, and thus on the health of the ecosystems that provide them.

With a significant rise in the demand for land to use intended for urban and agricultural development in South Africa, habitats are becoming increasingly threatened.

Because of the increasing scarcity of water in South Africa, there has been a significant amount of research into the impact of invasive alien plants on water supply. The realisation of these impacts saw the creation of a government-funded effort at clearing these plants. Although well funded through the tax base and compulsory charges, voluntary private initiatives have also been undertaken to boost the funding of the Working for Water (WfW) Programme.

The restoration and protection of catchment areas to improve water yields also leads to the conservation of biodiversity, a benefit that is more difficult to sell. The same is potentially true for the restoration of woodlands and thicket for carbon sequestration. With this rationale in mind, major conservation initiatives in South Africa are looking to Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) systems, mainly for water, as potential financing mechanisms.

Improving the understanding of the relationships between management actions and service delivery for a broader range of situations like clearing alien invasive plants, and the implications of wetland restoration for water yield, is vital in ensuring the success of these kinds of systems.

Management of ecological infrastructure


Research organisations like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) develop integrated systems for predicting extreme events and planning frameworks to improve response and reduce the risks of these extreme ecological events, such as natural disasters.

Ecological infrastructure (e.g. wetlands, riparian areas and coastal foredunes) plays a significant role in risk reduction and the value of regulating ecological services such as flood mitigation. The CSIR, for example, works with disaster managers and agencies to improve disaster management strategies, national development planning and land use planning.

Ecosystem service science for supporting policy development and implementation


The recent establishment of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) created an opportunity for ecosystem service science to positively influence both international and national policies.

Ecosystem assessments, like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, also implemented by the CSIR, are playing a key role on this panel in developing the science essential for ecosystem assessments and the information, tools and knowledge useful for policy and planning.

Ecosystem services for poverty alleviation

The possibility of ecosystem services offering an opportunity for poverty alleviation is an emerging area of research and responds to a growing global interest. South Africa offers a unique test bed of biophysical and social diversity (e.g. the WfW Programme, land reform, eco-tourism) and gradients for research to investigate ways in which ecosystem services can contribute to social development objectives.

Down to earth

Land conservation has the most significant impact on ecosystem services, as well-managed ecosystems naturally provide the best services. However, as most research is done internationally, it is difficult to determine the extent to which it is applicable in South Africa specifically.

Definite applicable areas for land conservation include:
• Intact natural vegetation, such as forests, mangroves and wetlands that can improve water quality.
• Wetlands and forests that can help to mitigate floods and droughts.
• Natural vegetation cover helps to preserve soil fertility and reduce erosion.
• Seagrasses, saltmarsh vegetation, wetlands and mangroves can reduce the height and force of waves and play a role in flood protection.

The protection of land for conservation purposes is beneficial for a significant amount of ecosystem services, largely because it limits disturbance and preserves the natural organisms.

There is research that documents the negative impacts that human-induced changes have had on native species and natural ecosystems. The field of ecosystem services is a relatively new area of research interest, however, and there are inevitable difficulties involved in identifying and measuring changes in ecosystem services.

Under some circumstances, restoring vegetation can improve water quality and water storage functions, and can reverse soil degradation and erosion on a local scale.

The notion that biodiversity is fundamental for all ecosystem services is largely accepted as a general concept, but this field of research is in its infancy and considerable uncertainties remain around the mechanisms underpinning this complex relationship.

The necessity of designing multifunctional landscapes that satisfy multiple needs such as energy, water provision, food production, waste management and the conservation of biodiversity is a critical reality.

CSIR initiatives

The CSIR has developed a number of other flagship projects, besides the WfW programme, that promote the development of these multifunctional landscapes.

These include:

Conserving our freshwater resources


The Freshwater Atlas identifies a national network of freshwater conservation areas, including these in need of rehabilitation, as well as the institutional basis to enable the effective management and conservation of these areas.

Managing the nation’s valuable terrestrial ecosystems

Researchers mapped and measured vegetation in the Kruger National Park area using light detection and radar, or LiDAR, on the ground. The data collected by the CSIR and its partners, the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, SANParks and the University of the Witwatersrand, is set to change the way in which such large areas are managed.

Managing South Africa’s estuaries


The CSIR developed a generic, multi-sectoral framework for estuary management planning in cooperation with the Cape Action for People and the Environment’s Estuaries Programme. At present, 26 estuary management plans, modelled on this generic framework, are in various stages of development across South Africa.

Improving rural communities’ ability to manage restitution land


Working in Limpopo, researchers showed that when rural land owners’ ability to make decisions regarding how they use the land is strengthened, it can lead to sustainable livelihoods, avoid social conflict and environmental degradation, and contribute to the development of sustainable multi-functional landscapes.

Water risks and the food and beverage industry

Partnering with World Wildlife fund (WWF-South Africa), the CSIR worked with a company in the food and beverage industry to determine core response strategies which should mitigate the majority of future water risk to their hop farm operations in the Cape.

Risk assessment and management for the insurance industry

Collaborating with a short-term insurer, the CSIR and the University of Cape Town developed a “proof of concept” to understand the impact of global change challenges on the insurance industry. With a clear understanding, insurance companies can improve their risk assessment capability and proactively manage their risk profile.

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to the CSIR, JK Turpiea, C Marais, JN Blignaut, “The Working for Water Programme: evolution of a payments for ecosystem services mechanism that addresses both poverty and ecosystem service delivery in South Africa” and the Department of Environmental and Water Affairs for the information given to write this article.

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