Mail & Guardian
SA’S ‘water tower’ is under siege
Communal rangeland degradation, invasive species, environmental destruction and climate change all threaten the Maloti-drakensberg mountain range
Southern Africa’s “water tower” — the majestic Maloti-drakensberg mountain range — is slipping towards a state of ecosystem collapse, with grave implications for water security.
According to Dr Ralph Clark, the director of the Afromontane research unit at the University of the Free State, the Maloti-drakensberg range is the largest provider of freshwater in the region, and its alpine system is crucial to this function.
An alpine environment, according to Sciencedirect, is cold, windy, snowy and characterised by low growing-season temperatures and a short frost-free period.
“But it is under tremendous pressure from intense communal rangeland degradation. If the alpine system collapses, water production will be detrimentally affected,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
The Maloti-drakensberg is a critical water source area, supporting nearly half of South Africa’s GDP, supplying Gauteng with 34% of its water and Bloemfontein with 70%.
The problems facing the mountain ecosystem are neither simple nor driven by a single cause, Clark said.
“You’ve got immediate local-scale impacts and global impacts such as climate change. When you’re dealing with a mountain system like the Maloti-drakensberg, it’s about 40000 km2.”
The mountain system is shared between South Africa and Lesotho, and in South Africa, between three provinces — the Free State, Kwazulunatal and the Eastern Cape.
“So you’ve got local actors doing different things, having different impacts that are positive and negative. If you take the Basotho herding situation for instance, you’ve got very, very poor people living in the mountains in a very desperate situation, with herding as one of their only livelihood options, using the alpine pastures in summer.”
But this is not sustainable as the numbers of animals are too big for the available mountain pasture.
“The pressure is high, which leads to a reduction in vegetation cover, which leads to soil erosion. One of the biggest problems is the loss of wetlands in the alpine zone, so your vast sponge systems that basically retain water and release it slowly, become dongas … where the rain just washes away,” says Clark.
“We see a pattern across the Maloti-drakensberg trending towards what we would call ecosystem collapse … where the system gets so degraded that without major intervention with huge financial costs, you wouldn’t be able to bring it back to what it was.”
The knock-on effects, Clark says, lead to economic and social collapse.
“Then you start getting migration of poor people from the mountains to the cities.”
This is already unfolding in a part of Lesotho, where the mountain system is highly degraded. “There is more bare ground than vegetation. The rivers no longer run all year, only after rain, and this has an effect on the Lesotho dams’ project, for example.”
The Basotho herders have few options to draw an income and are affected by economic and political problems. “Covid-19 has added to that with the loss of jobs and remittances from South Africa … so people have to go back to their rural livelihoods.”
There is geopolitical tension along South Africa’s border with Lesotho.
“It’s almost like a passive-aggressive relationship where the boundaries are in dispute between South Africa and Lesotho, particularly on the Kwazulu-natal side.
“Lesotho claims right to the edge of escarpment where South Africa claims up to the watershed, which is a little bit behind the escarpment.”
These “subdued tensions” lead to the heavy encroachment of Lesotho herders and their livestock into the South African side of the alpine zone.
Clark’s research uses the Mont-auxsources mountain as a case study.
“We’re really trying to unpack these challenges, examine the driving effects, look for alternative livelihood opportunities for herders and work with our Lesotho counterparts in government and research to come up with sustainable solutions.”
Beyond soil erosion and environmental degradation, the spread of invasive alien plant species is another threat, while climate change looms large.
Across the planet, mountains and polar regions are warming faster than anywhere else, Clark points out.
“There’s a number of climate change scenarios for South Africa and the take-home story is that our mountains remain crucial for water security in southern Africa, whether we have more rain, less rain or more drought prevalence … There is a strong link between water and regional and national stability.” Understanding the alpine system holistically is the first step towards its sustainability and restoration, says Clark, whose research unit is partnering with several institutions of higher learning and policy makers on the continent to expand alpine research, as a better understanding of Southern African mountains as social-ecological systems is needed.
In general, these mountains are largely unexplored by scientists, poorly researched, under-appreciated by economists and politicians despite the valuable public goods and services they provide, and absent from most government policies.
“We want to push the sustainable development agenda so that our mountains not only retain their catchment value but so we can improve it in the face of climate change and increasing human demand.”
Outside of South Africa, there’s virtually no mountain science capacity, with the exception of Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
“There aren’t people looking at southern African mountains at the scale that people are looking at the Alps, Himalayas, Andes or Rockies. If you compare us to East Africa, where you’ve got Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, we probably lag behind East Africa by 50 years in terms of research capacity, so we’re trying to work towards closing the gap.
“Even our biggest system, the Maloti-drakensberg, is understudied, but go further afield and even less has been done. Probably the most wellstudied mountain in South Africa is Table Mountain,” Clark says.
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