Swamps, marshes, floodplains and mangrove forests, all known as wetlands, are a precious resource. In their natural state, they provide a range of eco-system services. They regulate water flows, store eroded materials and nutrients and provide water, food and raw materials. Wetlands are defined as areas that are subject to seasonal or permanent flooding up to a depth of 6m.
Sustainable farming and wetlands
Throughout history, the general trend has been to convert wetlands from their natural state to allow other more intensive uses. In some parts of the world this has involved the creation of rice paddies, sugar estates or even fish farms.
In recent decades, particularly in Africa, wetlands have become a new agricultural frontier. In response, a number of agencies are trying to explore sustainable wetland management as a way of reducing rural poverty, improving food security and strengthening livelihood resilience in the face of climate change.
Wetlands as a buffer against disaster
The best-known example of wetlands for disaster risk reduction is probably the mangrove swamps in the tropics. On the east and west coasts of Africa these areas provide a buffer against storm surges, cyclones and tsunamis, as well as providing breeding grounds for fish and storage of carbon.
Wetlands are feeding towns and generating income, as well as savings, for farmers. They can use this extra cash to develop their farms and diversify their enterprises. In Mpika, northern Zambia, some successful wetland farmers have developed retail and house rental enterprises, whilst others have used their newly accumulated capital for trading in grain.
Managing wetlands better
In Africa, a range of organisations, from community groups to international agencies, have recognised the way in which wetlands can be important for poverty reduction, livelihood security and resilience in the face of climate change. A number of initiatives are underway to explore how wetlands can be managed sustainably.
But with growing rural populations, the degradation of upland fields due to prolonged farming, and climate change wetlands are under increasing pressure as farmers seek out fertile and moist sites. However, the increased flows of water from degraded uplands into the wetlands and the disturbance of natural vegetation by cultivation in the wetlands threatens erosion and damage to these valuable sites.
Measures were identified to improve upland management. These included improving land use through using soil and water conservation measures, inter-planting crops with agro-forestry trees, and maintaining areas of natural vegetation all of which facilitate water infiltration. This water percolates through to the wetlands several months later.
For example, in West Africa, the inter-governmental Africa Rice Centre is working to develop community planned and managed wetland use. It is estimated that transforming just 10% of wetlands can provide food security for the region through rice cultivation. The rest of the wetlands can be left in a natural state to stabilise flows and reduce flooding and erosion in the cultivated areas. – Bizcommunity
Read about how the agricultural and mining industry affects wetlands and other conservation areas in South Africa in the February edition of FarmBiz magazine:
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