As we celebrated World Wetlands Day on 2 February 2019 under the theme, ‘Wetlands and Climate Change’, the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere was celebrating the discovery of a rare peatland in Mpumalanga.  While it has been known that wetland systems occurs along many of the streams and tributaries in the Mpumalanga escarpment, very little research or mapping of these systems has been conducted and as a result they are poorly understood.

In January 2019, two wetland specialists, Dr. Lulu Pretorius and Anton Linström joined teams from the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) and Kruger 2 Canyons Biosphere Region (K2C BR) to conduct a preliminary investigation into some of the known wetlands in the upper Klaserie and Sand River catchments. Core samples confirmed that many of the wetlands assessed were in fact peatlands, both in the swamp-forests along the foot of the escarpment and in the high-altitude wetlands in the Klaserie headwaters.

Peatlands are wetlands in which the soil is rich in carbon (organic) content and is made up of partially decomposed, compressed organic material such as reeds and sedges, which forms in waterlogged environments as there is not enough oxygen for decomposition to occur at the usual rate. Due to peat’s high carbon (organic) content it also acts as a natural purifier of water and plays an important role in mitigating climate change.

Peatlands cover just three per cent of our world, yet they store nearly a third of all land-based carbon. This is twice as much as all the world’s forests. Once degraded, the functioning of these wetlands can be negatively impacted and methane is released back into the atmosphere.

Besides being a place for tourists to visit and experience some of South Africa’s most impressive landscapes, the Mpumalanga escarpment areas are water catchments where the intact grasslands and forests “catch” rainfall and mist in wetlands that is slowly discharged into the many rivers that the lowveld economies downstream rely on.

Water from the catchment feeds into the Blyde Dam which supports a multi-million-rand agricultural sector around Hoedspruit and the Kruger National Park and associated private game reserves rely on the water from the mountain to recharge their rivers. The household water supplied to towns such as Hoedspruit, Phalaborwa and Bushbuckridge all originate in the escarpment. Simply put, without the water from the escarpment, the lives of all people in the lowveld would be very different.

Wetland loss and degradation is a major concern, as it contributes to global warming by transforming these natural carbon sinks into emission sources. The burning and draining of peatlands accounts for a tenth of annual fossil fuel emissions worldwide, while wetland degradation contributes to nearly a quarter of global methane release (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands).

Understanding the current prevalence of wetland systems and now especially peat wetlands, in the upper catchment is crucial in the context of current efforts to declare these areas as part of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, develop relevant management plans and undertake restoration with a focus on alien plant clearing through the co-ordination and management of DEA NRM teams.

The Lowveld is a region facing significant water quality and quantity issues that impact on biodiversity and livelihoods and these issues are further exacerbated by climate change. It is therefore critical that further research into these little-known wetland systems in the upper catchments is conducted to better understand their ecology, distribution and service provision to the greater landscape. Resilient lowveld economies, livelihoods and ecosystems may depend on them.

For more information please contact Nicholas Theron from K2C via email: stewardship@kruger2canyons.org

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