Ecological infrastructure refers to naturally functioning ecosystems that deliver valuable services to people, such as water and climate regulation, soil formation and disaster risk reduction. It is the nature-based equivalent of built or hard infrastructure, and can be just as important for providing services and underpinning socio-economic development. Ecological infrastructure does this by providing cost effective, long-term solutions to service delivery that can supplement, and sometimes even substitute, built infrastructure solutions. Ecological infrastructure includes healthy mountain catchments, rivers, wetlands, coastal dunes, and nodes and corridors of natural habitat, which together form a network of interconnected structural elements in the landscape.
What we do
- Policy advice and support relating to ecological infrastructure in a range of sectors, including water, environment, agriculture, disaster risk reduction, municipal infrastructure and climate change adaptation
- Ecological infrastructure mapping
- Development of science based policy tools and pilot projects relating to ecological infrastructure
- Demonstration of the value and contribution of ecological infrastructure to the national development agenda
Where we work
Projects currently underway include:
- uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP), including the upper Mooi River catchment above the Spring Grove Dam and Mearn’s Weir, and the Upper Mkomazi River catchment above the planned Smithfield and Impendle Dams, in addition to the catchment of uMngeni River itself
- Research project, funded through the Green Fund, on investing in ecological infrastructure to enhance water security in the uMngeni River catchment
- Limiting and mitigating the impacts of coal mining on wetlands, focused on the Mpumalanga Highveld and funded through the Coaltech Research Association and Water Research Commission
- Strengthening the consideration of wetlands and water resources in decision-making around mining in Mpumalanga, through improved spatial data, funded through the Water Research Commission
Reasons for programme
The concept of ecological infrastructure represents a new way of looking at much of our biodiversity, attaching value to it and relating it to the national development agenda. Potential benefits of rehabilitating and maintaining our ecological infrastructure include the following:
- Ecological infrastructure enhances built infrastructure: Strategic investment in ecological infrastructure lengthens the life of existing built infrastructure and can reduce or delay the need for additional built infrastructure – often with significant cost savings. Degraded ecological infrastructure increases the vulnerability of built infrastructure to damage during extreme events like floods, and increases maintenance costs. It may be more cost effective to rehabilitate the ecosystems concerned than to keep repairing or replacing the built infrastructure.
- Ecological infrastructure supports rural development: Key elements of ecological infrastructure, including mountain catchments and corridors of natural vegetation, are located in rural areas. Rehabilitating and maintaining ecological infrastructure contributes to diversifying rural livelihood options, on one hand through direct job creation, and on the other by strengthening economic sectors such as sustainable farming and ecotourism. Rural communities usually rely directly on ecological infrastructure for goods and services, for example getting their drinking water directly from rivers, and tend to be most immediately and severely affected when ecosystems become degraded.
- Ecological infrastructure helps mitigate risk: Well managed ecological infrastructure can buffer human settlements and built infrastructure against extreme events like floods and droughts, playing a crucial and cost-effective role in disaster risk reduction. For example, coastal ecosystems such as dunes, mangroves and kelp beds reduce the impact of storm surges on coastal settlements. In some areas climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme events. Whether in the western part of the country (where it is expected to become hotter and drier with climate change), or the eastern part (where it will become hotter and wetter), healthy riparian zones and wetlands will help to slow flood waters, minimise erosion, and sustain base-flows in rivers.
- Ecological infrastructure creates jobs: Healthy ecological infrastructure supports a range of economic sectors, directly and indirectly. Restoring and maintaining ecological infrastructure creates jobs – it’s usually a labour intensive endeavor. We have only scratched the surface of this job creation potential. Many of the jobs would be in the poorest parts of the country with the least access to other employment opportunities. The 2011 Green Jobs Report by the Industrial Development Corporation and the DBSA highlights that the bulk of the jobs related to the green economy are likely to come from natural resource management – many more than from, for example, renewable energy generation or technologies for reducing emissions.
What we have achieved
- Concept of ecological infrastructure further developed and taken up in water policy
- Fact sheet on ecological infrastructure produced through the Grasslands Programme
- Memorandum of understanding for UEIP signed by 18 organisations to date
- Three pilot projects launched under the UEIP: Save the Midmar Dam, Palmiet River Rehabilitation and Bayne’s Spruit Rehabilitation
- Contributed to the development of a programme document for the proposed 19th Strategic Integrated Project (SIP) under the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission, focusing on ecological infrastructure and water security
- Produced a Framework for Investment in Ecological Infrastructure and Ecosystem Services in South Africa
- Draft guidelines for wetland offsets and an atlas of high risk wetlands for coal mining in the Mpumalanga Highveld
- Ground-truthing of wetland data included in the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas (NFEPA) dataset underway
Who we are
Mahlodi Tau (SANBI) – Deputy Director: Ecological Infrastructure
John Dini (SANBI) – Director: Ecological Infrastructure
Kristal Maze (SANBI) – Chief Director: Biodiversity planning and policy advice
Who to contact