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Environment & Poverty Times No. 5

Working for Wetlands

Smiling faces

Natural resources create new opportunities for people. A job or additional income can bring a positive change into the lives of the unemployed and the poor.

Working for wetlands is fun.
(Photo: Working for Wetlands)

By John Dini, South African National Biodiversity Institute

The value of protecting wetland ecosystems might easily be overlooked in countries where national priorities are more concerned with reducing poverty and achieving ambitious economic growth targets. Worldwide, wetlands are among the most abused and neglected ecosystems, frequently falling victim to the overwhelming imperative for development. Such an approach is self-defeating because wetlands provide – for free – invaluable ecosystem services that contribute to poverty reduction.

South Africa is one country that has recognized the value of these special ecosystems: eight years ago it launched its Working for Wetlands Programme, which couples wetland rehabilitation with job creation and skills development.

Wetlands support human health and well-being and are an important element of life in many rural areas of South Africa, providing food, medicine, grazing and materials for building and crafts, plus vital clean drinking water. In urban areas, the role that wetlands play is less obvious though they are a critical component in natural water management infrastructure, reducing the destructive energy of floods, improving water quality and providing green spaces for recreation and psychological well-being.

Water resource management is a particularly critical issue in South Africa; by 2025, the country will be one of 14 African countries classified as subject to water scarcity (less than 1000 m3 per person per year). Yet up to 60 per cent of the wetlands in some catchments are classified as degraded or lost, with a corresponding decline in their capacity to provide ecosystem services. Consequently, a key challenge is to maintain and restore these wetlands to ensure the ecosystem service levels they provide keeps pace with an expanding population and its increasing demands for the water, resources and services that wetlands can provide.

Wetland rehabilitation is the core business of the government-led Working for Wetlands Programme. Using a systematic and collaborative approach on a national scale, the programme works through projects that maximize employment creation, create and support small businesses and transfer relevant and marketable skills in the course of carrying out rehabilitation work. Since the programme was launched in 2000, it has grown into one of the most successful environmental programmes of the South African government and now controls an annual budget of ZAR 75 million (USD 9.6 million).

The programme is managed by the South African National Biodiversity Institute on behalf of the departments of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Agriculture, and Water Affairs and Forestry. It forms part of the government’s Expanded Public Works Programme, which seeks to draw unemployed people into the productive sector of the economy.

In the past year, the Working for Wetlands Programme has rehabilitated 83 wetlands through 40 projects, in the process providing temporary employment for more than 2,200 people. Interventions ranged from stabilizing erosion and plugging drainage channels to breaching barriers, such as roads, that impede the flow of water. For every 22 days of employment, workers receive two days of training. In total, workers benefited from 38,000 such training days, involving personal finance and business practises, literacy and HIV/AIDS awareness, as well as learning relevant technical skills such as concrete mixing and horticultural techniques. Thus the programme achieves two goals – it builds the capacity to rehabilitate, manage and conserve wetlands in South Africa and also enables workers to learn marketable skills and enhance their personal development.

Though the immediate beneficiaries of the rehabilitation work are those directly employed, in reality the income earned is vital for a far larger number of people as the worker on the project is often the only breadwinner in the family. Wetland rehabilitation is vital – its indirect benefits reach far into the broader South African community, positively affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, enhancing biodiversity and securing crucial ecosystem services.

Zoar before.
(Photo: Working for Wetlands)

Zoar after.
(Photo: Working for Wetlands)