Court dismisses farmers' appeal over flooding at Africa’s largest estuary system

2018-10-02 16:55
The uMfolozi River.

The uMfolozi River. (Nicolette Forbes)

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A group of sugar cane farmers, who sought to manage the flooding of water on their farmland, have failed in their bid to appeal a ruling over the management and breaching of the uMfolozi River in the St Lucia Estuary.

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) ruled in favour of iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and a group of ministers on Monday.

The St Lucia Estuary in Kwazulu-Natal, which is the largest estuarine system in Africa at 155 000 hectares, forms the core of the wetland park.

The estuary relies on freshwater inflow from five rivers, the most important of which is from the uMfolozi River.

Sugar cane has been cultivated on the uMfolozi floodplain since 1911.

The uMfolozi River mouth closes periodically when there is not much rainfall, causing the water to flood back onto the farms instead of flowing into the sea.

In 2015, Umfolozi Sugar Planters Limited (UCOSP), together with UCOSP shareholder farmers Paul van Rooyen and Petros Maphumulo, went to court over the breaching (opening) of the uMfolozi River mouth.

Van Rooyen said in his founding affidavit that the wetland authority "could never legally be permitted to flood my land, and that of other farmers, and effectively destroy the cane which I have, now repeatedly, tried to grow on that land…"

The applicants wanted to drain the flooding levels and prevent back flooding of their farmland.

They also initially wanted relief regarding their allegation that iSimangaliso was not managing the river mouth properly, which had a direct impact on the neighbouring farmland.

Lake St Lucia (Supplied)

Listed as respondents in the matter with the wetland park authority were ministers for water and sanitation; environmental affairs; agriculture, forestry and fisheries; and rural development and land reform. 

In response to the court action at the time, the wetland park authority argued that back flooding was part of a natural estuarine process.

It also said that there was a planned project that would ameliorate the back flooding by rejoining the artificial diversion of the uMfolozi River into a single natural estuarine system.

MAP: iSimangaliso's St Lucia set for bold facelift

Pending the finalisation of the matter, and by agreement between the parties, the KwaZulu-Natal High Court ordered in 2015 that the river mouth would be breached.

By the time the matter was heard in the High Court, the applicants amended the relief that they sought.

They wanted iSimangaliso to stick to a timetable for the Estuarine Management Plan (EMP), take account in the plan "of its obligation to prevent and drain down back flooding on the applicants' farmland", and pay its legal costs.

After hearing the matter, the High Court dismissed their applications. 

Read more: Flood risk to cane fields has to take a back seat to nature’s needs

It also ruled that UCOSP had not adequately shown that iSimangaliso failed to develop and/or implement the statutory requirements for managing the river mouth.

In upholding this ruling on Monday, the SCA said that the appellants were consulted at all stages of the estuary's management strategy and did not raise an objection.

The SCA pointed out that the matter was moot as iSimangaliso had since submitted a final Integrated Management Plan (IMP), which included the EMP for St Lucia.

The IMP was gazetted on September 22, last year.

It said that the appellants did not properly bring challenges to set aside the IMP, EMP or any administrative actions based on these plans.

The appeal was dismissed with costs.

Read more on:    durban  |  farming  |  land  |  court

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