The Water Research Commission (WRC) joined the world in commemorating World Wetlands Day on Sunday 2 February 2014. The Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs led South Africa’s celebrations held at the Mbongolwane Sports Field in Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal on Friday 31 January 2014.
World Wetlands Day is an annual event that commemorates the signing of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar. The annual celebration aims to, amongst others, raise awareness of the benefits of wetlands as a natural resource in communities. The theme for this year’s celebrations was Wetlands and Agriculture.
A recent WRC study conducted by the Institute of Natural Resources has found that wetland use has declined in Mbongolwane, due to the overdependence of villagers on social welfare grants. Mbongolwane is situated in the headwaters of the Amatikulu catchment, 25 km west of the town of Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal.
According to the WRC study, many of the households at Mbongolwane, despite the advantage of having access to an extensive wetland as their livelihood support, have deviated from utilising the wetland for agriculture and natural resources and have introduced trade activities into their livelihood strategies, so as to increase their cash earnings. Some use the cash from their small child support grants or a portion of their old age pensions to invest in initiatives such as selling chickens, cell phone airtime, or other commodities purchased in town and resold locally. This trade grows their monthly cash income. This transition has been accompanied by a shift away from the use of locally harvested wetland resources such as reeds towards the use of commercial alternatives such as corrugated iron for roofing material.
The Mbongolwane area is characteristically rural with very little access to infrastructure and services available to the local population. Historically the Mbongolwane community relied heavily on the environment and agricultural production to meet their household nutritional needs. However, in recent times there has been a general decline in the level of use and dependency on the wetland by local households.
While addressing the locals the Deputy Minister stated that “wetlands are a key element of achieving the goals of poverty eradication worldwide. They can literally be lifesavers, particularly in arid regions that support dry season food production, water and grazing for livestock.”
The WRC study also found that the Mbongolwane youth are now driven by the desire to earn cash incomes as primary mechanisms of sustaining their livelihoods. In the past the youth worked with older people in the fields in return for payment in the form of produce from the fields.
“Nowadays, the youth no longer want to work in the fields and are only interested in employment that pays cash incomes. There has been a shift in lifestyle and culture and this has influenced the behavioural practices’’, says one of the older women in the area. “For example, unemployed youth spend a large portion of the day unoccupied, but are not willing to invest this time in working in the wetlands”.
A common perception amongst the younger generation is that city life is better. The youth commonly expressed their desire to work in cities as there is a belief that there are employment opportunities in the cities that do not exist in the Mbongolwane area.
In the Mbongolwane area the cash trade in natural resources has increased fairly recently with the introduction of markets for the sale of natural resources such as reeds and sedges (e.g. umhlanga and ikwane) and products made from these wetland resources (e.g. conference bags and sleeping mats). However, a very small group of women have taken this initiative.
“What is more concerning is the declining trend in the extent of cultivation in the wetland as well as in the surrounding dryland areas. However, the households that still cultivate in the wetland consider this cultivation to be very important for sustaining their households”, concludes Dr Stanley Liphadzi.