Mfolozi River breaching judgment deferred
"Judgment has been deferred in a matter that will have far-reaching consequences for the iSimangaliso Wetland Park."
On Thursday – in terms of an order by Durban High Court Judge Mohini Moodley – iSimangaliso agreed that the mouth of the Mfolozi River will be breached when it becomes necessary to avoid flooding of sugar cane farms on the flood plain.
However, a decision on the application, by Umfolozi Sugar Planters Limited (UCOSP), for the court to force iSimangaliso to comply with statutory obligations and develop policies with regard to the mouth, will be heard next year.
UCOSP made an urgent application in August as sugar cane farmers allegedly fear for their livelihoods.
The cost of breaching the mouth when levels reach a certain height will be shared, as the two parties agreed.
In the interim, said iSimangaliso spokeswoman, Bronwyn Coppola, “iSimangaliso retains the ability to manage the environmental integrity of the system in line with its 2011/12 management plan, without the automatic trigger level or breaching as sought by UCOSP in its application”.
She claimed UCOSP, which has been involved in the development of the new management strategy for the St Lucia Estuary since 2008, “did not follow through on undertakings made to iSimangaliso to do the studies and improve flood protection measures in line with the management plan.
“These measures would, in iSimangaliso’s view, assist the farmers and UCOSP to mitigate the natural consequences of farming in a floodplain without damaging the estuary system.”
In court this week the parties agreed pre-determined levels of “flooding” would be monitored by the farmers, and followed by breaching within 24 hours.
“iSimangaliso’s mandate, in line with the World Heritage Convention Act and South Africa’s commitments as a signatory with 180 other nations to the Unesco World Heritage Convention, is to protect the conservation values of iSimangaliso, facilitate regional tourism development, as well as the empowerment of disadvantaged communities.”
iSimangaliso’s chief executive, Andrew Zaloumis, said: “In a year of the lowest rainfall in recorded history and still-awaited late summer rains, Lake St Lucia is in dire need of fresh water from the Mfolozi River.
“We are pleased the environment’s right to water is being recognised and is no longer taken for granted.
“The health of Lake St Lucia, Africa’s largest estuary, is material to the viability of local and national economic activities, and the greater good that all far outweigh the benefits of a few farmers who over the years have gained substantially from unsustainable and damaging practices.”
St Lucia is the world’s oldest protected estuary (1895) and Africa’s largest estuarine system. It is also the centrepiece of South Africa’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and has been a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance since 1986.
Coppola explained that the estuarine system supports high levels of biodiversity and viable populations of threatened species which are of international and national importance, including feeding and breeding areas for endangered and endemic species.
It is, she said, also the most important nursery ground for juvenile marine fish and prawns along the KwaZulu-Natal coast.
“More than 50 percent of all water birds in KwaZulu-Natal feed, roost and nest in this estuary,” Coppola said.
“In 2012, iSimangaliso overturned the 60-year-old management strategy that kept the Mfolozi River separate from the Lake St Lucia system.
“Since then, the Mfolozi River has been allowed to follow its natural path into the Lake St Lucia system. This has resulted in increased water levels, initiated the process of restoring estuarine functioning and a normal salinity range over the past 24 months.
“The Mfolozi is Lake St Lucia’s largest catchment and is the main fresh water source (about 60 percent) to this estuarine system. Its importance increases during dry years.”
Coppola said that artificial breaching was “a convenient, but disruptive means of altering the natural processes of an estuary.
“This is often done for the benefit of a few individuals but at the expense of the ecological health and services that these systems provide. This has a ripple effect because the health of the ecosystem affects the livelihoods of people in the area.”
The park is in the uMhan-yakhude District Municipality, one of the poorest and most underdeveloped local authorities in the country.
More than 80 percent of households in the region live below the poverty line. The harvesting of raw materials, such as estuarine sedges, brings in about R7.5 million a year and livestock grazing is worth about R3.6m a year.
Tourism in the St Lucia estuary area creates 1 291 direct and 6 924 indirect jobs. More than half a million visitors a year – 42 percent of them from overseas – contribute R46m to the economy.