Restoring nature’s balance

2012-10-16 00:00

THE water level of the drought-stricken St Lucia wetland system rose by 33 cm before the arrival of the spring rains. This occurred because of a new canal linking the uMfolozi River to the lakes.

Since the canal was dug three months ago to link the uMfolozi to the lakes for the first time in 60 years, an estimated 16,4 billion litres of fresh water has flowed into the lakes, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority has revealed.

However, the authority has warned that, depending on rainfall, it could still take years before Africa’s largest wetland system would be restored to its natural health.

As a result of the natural opening up of the estuary following heavy rains last month, the water level in the lakes will now be highly dependent on rainfall, iSimangaliso has said in a statement.

While a big flood could fill up the system rapidly, with normal rainfall it could take a few years, according to the statement.

As a result of research by 41 experts funded by the Global Environment Facility, it was decided to join the uMfolozi to the lakes once again, after the natural swamps in the area of the river estuary were destroyed in the fifties and the river was fed to the sea by means of a canal to make space for sugar cane fields.

Fears that the canal may cause the lakes to silt up with the uMfolozi flowing into them again, were also allayed by the recent research.

Owing to last month’s rain the uMkhuze, uMphathe and Nyalazi Rivers are once again flowing strongly into the St Lucia lakes.

While the salinity in the northern parts of the lakes is still higher than that of sea water (53 parts per 1 000, compared with 35 parts per 1 000 for sea water), the estuary up to the Narrows once again has fresh water.

The water from the uMfolozi will cause the estuaries of the lakes to wash open and silt up naturally in the future, which has not happened during the nine-year-long drought, iSimangaliso said.

According to scientists’ models, the lagoon system will, however, be open more than it will be closed.

Thanks to the opening of the estuary, the lagoon system is once again serving as a shelter for young prawns and fish species, like grunters and stumpnoses, until they reach near adulthood, according to the park authority.

Over the next few years, in the final phase of their project, scientists will analyse different management methods for the St Lucia system in the light of its ecological, social and economic impact, the authority said.

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