New freshwater ecosystem atlas is launched

14 November 2011

Atlas Freshwater logo

A new atlas that contains mapped river, wetland and estuary priorities for South Africa was launched by the Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Ms Rejoice Mabudafhasi on 14 November 2011. 

The Atlas of Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas is the result of a project that started three years ago to answer the question: How many and which rivers and wetlands do we have to maintain in a natural condition to sustain economic and social development, while still conserving our freshwater biodiversity?

Project partners

Partners in the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas project (NFEPA) included the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the CSIR, the Water Research Commission (WRC), the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), the Department of Water Affairs, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), and the South African National Parks (SANParks).

The importance of water

Project leader and CSIR principal scientist Dr Jeanne Nel says water influences the well-being of a country’s people; water shortages or a decline in water quality will hamper economic development. Ultimately, she says, the quantity, quality and timing of water flows are determined by the health of the ecosystems through which the water passes.

Poor state of our river ecosystems

Mandy Driver, Director Biodiversity Policy at SANBI, says the National Biodiversity Assessment 2004 highlighted the poor state of many river ecosystems in South Africa, with the majority of ecosystems associated with South Africa’s large rivers being critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. “The National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas project has its roots in these findings. We needed a strategic intervention to help sustain and conserve the country’s freshwater ecosystems,” she says.

Key findings from NFEPA

Some of the key findings that emerged from the project include:

  • Overall, tributaries are in a far better state than mainstem rivers and they offer excellent conversation opportunities. They also support the sustainability of hard-working rivers further downstream by diluting poor water quality and ‘flushing’ pollutants, Only 35% of the length of South Africa’s mainstem rivers is in a good condition, compared to 57% of the tributaries.
  • Some 57% of river ecosystems and 65% of wetland ecosystems are threatended. The high levels of threat result particularly from intense land pressures, especially around cities.
  • By treating less than a quarter (22%) of our rivers as priority areas, to be maintained in a natural or near-natural state, South Africa will be able to conserve examples of its diverse freshwater ecosystems while contributing to sustainable development of water resources in the country.
  • South Africa has only 62 free-flowing rivers (i.e. rivers without dams), which constitute only 4% of our river length. Free-flowing rivers have become a very rare feature in the South African landscape. NFEPA has identified 19 flagship free-flowing rivers that should be kept free-flowing.
  • The priority areas identified in the Atlas protect over 50 fish species that are threatened with extinction. By managing a small proportion of our rivers, their extinction can be avoided.

Features of the Atlas

The atlas contains 19 maps of freshwater ecosystem priority areas: one for each Water Management Area in South Africa. Each map shows river priority areas and the associated land that drains into that particular river reach, called the sub-catchment. These rivers should be maintained in a natural or near-natural state. The map also shows wetlands and clusters of wetlands that are priorities. It has different colour fish symbols to indicate the presence of a fish sanctuary for critically endangered and other threatened indigenous freshwater fish.

Upstream management areas are also indicated: in these areas care must be taken that land-use and development does not impact on the ecological condition of the downstream priority areas.

The Atlas is also available on DVD with a GIS viewer. The project team has compiled an implementation manual to provide guidance on how the freshwater ecosystem priority areas should be implemented. A technical report explaining the science behind the maps is also available. All of these products can be accessed on SANBI's Biodiversity GIS website , under the Maps tab. 

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