The South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) reports that, as a result of undue pressure on the environment, there has been a decline in the quality of environmental infrastructure in the country.
Nonetheless, Sanbi CEO Tanya Abrahamse tells Engineering News that, in areas where a concerted effort has been made to maintain and restore critical ecological infrastructure, such as wetlands through the Working for Wetlands programme, and riverine and water catchment areas through the Working for Water programme, tangible benefits are visible in the form of improved environmental health and ecosystem functioning.
“The Working for Water and Working for Wetlands programmes have restored ecological functioning and the flow of nature’s goods and services in many parts of the country, but these efforts need to be up- scaled and expanded to improve ecosystem resilience and service delivery across the country – particularly in critical ecosystems under pressure and at ‘tipping points’. These efforts can be win-win-win; improving ecosystems will lead to better conservation of biodiversity, while delivering ecosystem services, and creating ‘green’ jobs,” she notes.
Abrahamse points out that environmental infrastructure is an integral part of the country’s working economy, and wetlands are vital for purifying water and regulating water flows, acting as sponges that store water and release it slowly, filtering pollutants and easing the impact of droughts and floods in the process. “With the predictions of more and severe rainfall events owing to climate change, healthy rivers and wetlands become even more important.
“Savanna and grasslands are the ‘bread baskets’ of our country, providing key goods and services, such as fertile soils and complex biodiversity for agriculture, pollination, grazing, wildlife and medicinal plants,” she adds.
Ecosystem services, like municipal services, play an essential role in our day-to-day lives. This often invisible ecological infrastructure, together with well planned man-made infrastructure, has the potential to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and alleviate poverty.
“South Africa has a particular competitive advantage here as a country with one of the highest biodiversity, with unique and valu- able biomes, vegetation and topography. Biodiversity conservation and environ- mental protection will only be sustainable if this value is recognised and included in the costing of service delivery,” Abrahamse continues.
She emphasises that inappropriately sited development and human activity, over- abstraction and wasteful water use are some of the key challenges faced. “We need to apply more strategic forward planning of land use at national and local levels to ensure the ongoing delivery of the critical ecosystem services on which society depends.”
The main challenge is to incorporate longer-term sustainability planning, which should be done as soon as possible. Predictions on the impact of climate change make ecosystem resilience and sustainability a ‘must have’. “Securing society’s critical water supplies is one of the big issues at stake here. If full cost accounting is done, the vital and valuable role of healthy ecosystems will be apparent. The relatively small investments in the ‘Working for’ programmes have been shown to have enormous returns in this regard,” she adds.
Strategic land-use planning is one way of ensuring that ecosystem services continue to deliver and that biodiversity economic opportunities are not foreclosed in areas of high potential.
To meet this need, Sanbi has developed powerful land-use decision support tools to enable such strategic planning and decision- making to take place. These tools are based on scientific and environmental knowledge garnered over decades of research and investigative work in partnership with other biodiversity organisations. For example, Sanbi produced a detailed Vegetation Map of South Africa, which Abrahamse says is iconic in the sector and was a key foundation stone of this journey.
“The models and tools developed help us to increase positive development outcomes and can also reduce the cost of doing business. It is about development and the environment, as opposed to the either/or paradigm we are often exposed to,” she adds.
But good science-based research and evidence are not enough, says Abrahamse. “The ‘pieces of the puzzle’ include that this knowledge be packaged for the ‘decision-making’ user; that biodiversity information be accessible to decision-makers, other scientists and citizens; and that South Africa has the human capacity at all levels and sectors to engage with this information to implement decisions.”
She explains that Sanbi’s mandate under the National Environmental Biodiversity Act, as well as its designated role set out in the National Biodiversity Framework, has afforded an opportunity to engage in these important ‘puzzle pieces’.
Sanbi leads the engagement to accelerate skills and human capital development in the biodiversity sector towards building a cadre that is confident and competent enough to manage our natural capital asset into the future.
“The overarching factor of environmental sustainability is people. Unless the majority of our people understand the importance of biodiversity (the environment and ecosystems) and that it is part of knowledge generation, and are empowered to engage in decision-making, we will not achieve a natural environment that will be healthy enough to generate goods and services today and tomorrow,” she warns.
In conclusion, accelerating and growing skills in the biodiversity sector will enable the needed expansion of successful initiatives such as Working for Wetlands and Working for Water.