Penny Rees recalls the last time she was at the uMngeni Vlei:
“Almost a year since we began our walk down the uMngeni River, I have received the wonderful news that uMngeni Vlei has been declared a RAMSAR site. As I look back on the day a year ago when we stood on the top of the hill overlooking the wetlands that are the birth place of our river, I remember the awe I felt seeing Umgeni Vlei, the awe that this vast wetland could give birth to not only a river, but OUR river. I remember being humbled by the wonder of the miracle of Mother Earth, that a circle of grassy hills, dotted with seeps and springs that feed the vlei can not only give birth to the river that sustains so many of us in KZN, but also provides a home to countless cranes, Oribi, fish eagle, otters, porcupine and other creatures.”
uMngeni Vlei Nature Reserve, where the uMngeni river rises, is a 600ha wetland situated in the Impendle Municipal district between Dargle and Fort Nottingham. The RAMSAR Secretariat announced this month that the government of South Africa has designated the uMngeni Vlei Nature Reserve located at about 1,840m asl in the Drakensberg Alpine Centre biodiversity hotspot, as its 21st Wetland of International Importance. The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
Penny continues: “I remember as we stood atop the hill, with a cool breeze blowing up the hillside to us, carrying the scents and sounds and peace of the vlei below, that I offered up a silent prayer that this beautiful serene place would always receive the protection it needs, and so to hear that it is now a RAMSAR site is like the cherry on top of the icing. Although the vlei has long been under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s protection, the added status and international recognition of this new RAMSAR site takes the Vlei’s protection to another level.”
uMngeni Nature Reserve (958ha) which surrounds the Vlei protects important ecosystems including Drakensberg Foothill Moist Grassland, Eastern Temperate Wetlands and Drakensberg Wetland vegetation and Highland Sourveld grasslands. These contain endemic and threatened fauna and flora including Merwilla natalensis, Kniphofia brachystachya, Kniphofia breviflora, Oribi antelope, all three crane species, ground hornbill and ground woodpecker, yellow breasted pipit and blue swallow.
About 50% of South Africa’s wetlands have already been destroyed or converted through draining, the building of dams, incorrect burning and overgrazing, invasive alien species, waste disposal, water abstraction, agriculture, urban development and inappropriate land management. Nowadays, the value of the eco-system goods and services they provide humanity is being increasingly understood. A healthy wetland has richer species diversity than other eco-systems and plays an important role in traditional Africa culture. They store water and release it at a steady rate through the year and they also have the ability to clean polluted water, are havens for wildlife, provide useful materials and offer fishing, recreation and tourism opportunities too. They also help protect people and homes from floods by slowing down the flow of water through the landscape. Small wonder then, that there are many efforts in process to protect and restore them.
Vaughan Koopman, wetland ecologist with WESSA Mondi Wetland Programe attended a ‘High Level Inception Workshop’ during February hosted by SANBI and eThekwini Municipality to explore partnerships and synergies for water security and service delivery through investment in natural infrastructure in the greater uMngeni catchment. He commented “I was interested to learn that at least 4.5 million people live in the catchment of the uMngeni system and that 80% of the KwaZulu Natal GDP is produced in in catchment.”
Fortunately, uMngeni Vlei has not been transformed and is still able to fulfil the role of a well-functioning wetland supplying water to the uMngeni River and, in turn, to everyone who lives and works in the catchment. The formal protection of this vlei is a big step forward in conserving water resources for all the species which rely on it.
RAMSAR designation will ensure long-term commitment from the landowners to maintaining the wetland’s health and help Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to manage the protected area. We all need to reflect on the benefits that wetlands provide and do all we can to ensure our water resources are healthy and well cared for.
Penny concludes: “A lot of people have put in many hours of work to get the RAMSAR proposal completed, lodged and passed, and they deserve a huge big thank you for all this work. The Mayday team would like to congratulate them for a job so well done! Thank you. Now that our uMngeni River’s source is now protected, its time to work on a concerted effort to restore the rest of the upper catchment that lies between the vlei and Midmar Dam.”
Judy Bell, Chair of the Midlands Conservancies Forum adds: “We are excited by the news that our special place in the Midlands has achieved Ramsar Status. This will help to protect the source of the uMngeni River, which provides a continuous supply of clean water to people living here and all the way down to the coast. We cherish this site and hope this international recognition will inspire everyone to protect our essential ecosystems with more vigour, so that we never have to choose between conserving these life-support systems and development.”