Twin treasures—ecosystem services for life

Mpumalanga is the only province in the country, and one of the few in the world, to celebrate its grasslands.

Mpumalanga is to a large extent a grassland and wetland province and our grasslands and wetlands are two of our province’s greatest treasures: our twin treasures. They are twins as they share certain characteristics, and when healthy grasslands and wetlands join forces they are responsible for some of the most important ecosystem services that are vital for humans and the environment as well as economic development,

In recognition of the vulnerability of grasslands and the vital services they provide to the ecosystem, in 2013 the Mpumalanga Government declared a Provincial Grasslands Week to be celebrated annually in February.

Mpumalanga is to a large extent a Grassland and Wetland Province. Grasslands originally covered 61% of Mpumalanga, but 44% of this has been transformed. Various types of wetlands are embedded in the grassland matrix, including high altitude mountain seeps (where water comes out of the ground), river catchments, peat wetlands, flood plains, oxbow lakes and permanent or temporary pans.

Ecological infrastructure (the nature-based equivalent of built or hard infrastructure), is one of Mpumalanga’s greatest assets. Ecological infrastructure refers to naturally functioning ecosystems that deliver valuable Ecosystem services e.g. healthy catchments, rivers, grasslands, wetlands, natural habitat, climate regulation, pollination, soil formation and disaster risk reduction.

The economy of Mpumalanga depends heavily on energy and mineral resources, biodiversity, agriculture, forestry and tourism in terms of their contribution to the GDP and employment. Ecosystem failure and the consequences thereof, will critically impact on these sectors’ potential and even their optimal continuation. Additionally, ecosystem failure will seriously compromise our ability to address social and economic priorities even in the short term.

The most important drivers of change in ecosystems are population growth and migration, habitat change (land-use change and physical and unsustainable practices), overexploitation, invasive alien species, pollution, and climate change.

When Grasslands and Wetlands (our Twin Treasures) join forces they are responsible for some of the most important ecosystem services; Water production, Climate regulation and Biodiversity. These are the same ecosystem services that are vital to the key economic sectors in Mpumalanga; mining, tourism and agriculture.

Water production

The nature of the vegetation in grasslands and wetlands, both above and below ground, forms an effective substrate for capturing water, maximising infiltration, limiting erosive run-off and soil loss. They are critically important water production landscapes, playing a vital role in maintaining the quality and quantity of water entering rivers, streams and aquifers.

Three wetland systems and their surrounding grasslands are of special importance:

  • The Wakkerstroom wetland complex, serves as a water source for the Buffalo, Pongola, Usuthu and Vaal Rivers.
  • The Verloren Valei wetland complex near Dullstroom is a declared Ramsar site. This wetland feeds two of South Africa’s most important rivers, the Olifants and Crocodile Rivers, which flow into Mozambique.
  • The Chrissiesmeer wetland complex is also referred to as the Mpumalanga Lake District. The area represents the highest concentration of pans and wetlands as it has more than 270 wetlands within a 20 km radius. The wetlands feed the headwaters of the Vaal, Olifants and Komati Rivers.
Watsonias in the Grass- and Wetlands of Verloren Valei

In addition, Mpumalanga has three Water Source Areas (WSAs) of importance which not only provide the Mpumalanga Province with water but also other provinces and neighbouring countries of Mozambique and eSwatini. The three WSAs are:

  • ENKANGALA DRAKENSBERG – supplies water to parts of Mpumalanga (eMbalenhle, Standerton, Delmas, Volksrust, and Ermelo) KwaZulu Natal (Newcastle, Richard’s Bay, Vryheid, Dundee, eSikhawini) and to parts of the Gauteng and Free State Provinces.
  • MBABANE HILLS – supplies water to parts of Mpumalanga (Nelspruit, Standerton, Ermelo), Swaziland and Mozambique. This area is also home to the Inkomati River, which connects South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, an example of the importance of being ‘good water neighbours’ to other countries.
  • MPUMALANGA DRAKENSBERG – supplies water to parts of Mpumalanga (Nelspruit, eMalahleni, Middelburg) and Phalaborwa in Limpopo.

Climate regulation

  • Climate change is a reality and threatens to alter temperatures and rainfall patterns across the globe.
  • Climate change will compound the pressures on already stressed ecosystems that have resulted from the unsustainable use and inadequate management of many of South Africa’s ecosystems and so potentially reduce the quantity and quality of the services that ecosystems currently provide.
  • Grasslands and Wetlands help to moderate global climatic conditions, as they have been sequestering carbon for millennia.
  • Healthy Twin Treasures are carbon sequestering systems (carbon sinks).
  • That means that they have the ability to remove and store excess carbon (via photosynthesis) from the atmosphere – one of the primary components of greenhouse gases and a driver of climate change.
  • While grasslands and wetlands are also victims of climate change, they contribute to both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change e.g. prevention of floods etc, improvement of land and ecosystem health and resilience, biological diversity and water cycles, carbon sequestration (storage) while serving as a basis of agricultural productivity and economic growth.
  • In order to avoid future catastrophic climate change, we need to urgently and significantly manage ecosystems and habitats that act as critical natural carbon sinks to ensure that they retain as much of the carbon trapped in the system as possible and don’t tend to become sources to the atmosphere.

Biodiversity

  • Biodiversity describes the diversity of life at three different levels: the number of different species, the genetic wealth within each species, and the ecosystems within which they live and interact.
  • Each part within this complex web diminishes a little when one part weakens or disappears.
  • Grasslands and Wetlands provide food, water, and shelter for fish, birds, mammals and man. This biodiversity includes many of South Africa’s rare, threatened and endemic animal species.
  • Nationally, biodiversity tourism generates a direct spend of approximately R31 billion annually and the Tourism sector employs approximately 1.5-million people.
  • Our medicinal plant species contribute to the African Traditional Medicine sector worth R18billion per year.
  • Mpumalanga is blessed with a rich variety of living organisms, habitats and ecosystems. Our MTT are essential ecological infrastructure for tourism and recreation in the province.
  • Our biodiversity is one of the main motivators for domestic and foreign tourists visiting Mpumalanga.
  • Continued investment in managing and conserving biodiversity is essential so that jobs and other benefits that depend on biodiversity can continue to increase.

Like all forms of infrastructure, ecological infrastructure needs to be well maintained and managed to ensure the optimal delivery of ecosystem services. Not just for plants, animals, micro-organisms and their ecosystems, but also for humans and their needs, such as food security, clean air and water and a healthy environment.

During the 2019 Mpumalanga State of the Province Address by Premier Refilwe Mtshweni, she stated that the provincial unemployment rate has increased from 26.6% in 2014 to 32% in 2018 with a youth unemployment rate of 43.5%. The NDP Vision 2030 is government’s blueprint to unite all South Africans around addressing the triple challenge of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

Mpumalanga’s ecological infrastructure is a valuable though vulnerable asset that could be a rich source of natural solutions to the challenges posed by poverty and unemployment. Provincially thousands of short, medium and long term work opportunities are created through Environmental programmes and projects that will contribute to economic growth and development.

Environmental sector jobs include amongst others:

  • The Working for Water, Working on Fire, Working for Wetlands and the Working on Waste programmes.
  • The Youth Environmental Services Programme (YES), the Environmental Protection and Infrastructure Programme (EPIP) and the Natural Resource Management Programme (NRM).
  • The Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) is amongst the South African government’s major, cross-cutting programmes for poverty alleviation, skills development and short-term employment creation, through various labour-intensive public works projects.
  • The Zonda Insila Programme(ZIP) is an environmental advocacy programme, initiated by honourable MEC Shongwe from the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs. It is the provincial vehicle to embody and support the National Good Green Deeds Programme which aims to place environmental care at the centre of South African culture by caring for the planet and its people, through environmental actions that take into consideration sustainable living practices.

Our Twin Treasures’ ecosystems provide many essential ecosystem services, underpinned by rich biodiversity and diverse ecosystem processes. For the sake of a healthy and sustainable Mpumalanga, we need to manage it carefully and use it with the utmost care and respect.

Capacity-building workshop at Verloren Valei

In preparation for the celebration of our Twin Treasures 2020, the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Administration’s Environmental Empowerment Directorate organised a capacity building excursion to Verloren Valei Nature Reserve.

Frans Mashabela (MWF) did a very informative presentation on the importance of soil management, and Frans Krige shared his passion and excitement for the biodiversity of wetlands and their importance as a Water Source Area.

Sources: DARDLEA and Mpumalanga Wetlands Forum) February 2020 Newsletter

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