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TitleMining, agriculture and wetland ecological infrastructure in the Upper Komati catchment (South Africa): contestations in a complex social-ecological system
AuthorKeighley, Tia-Kristi
Format158 leaves
AbstractWetlands provide a wide variety of natural benefits (ecosystem services) from the natural environment to human populations, making them key examples of ecological infrastructure. However, the use of wetlands and their associated catchments is often contested by different users, making them nodes of conflict. Thus, there is a range of pressures on many wetlands which can ultimately lead to degradation or destruction. This study investigated the X11B quaternary catchment in the Upper Inkomati basin, Mpumalanga, South Africa. This catchment is characterised by a network of wetlands and streams that provide catchment residents with water. The sub-catchment is heavily used, dominated by the agricultural sector and coal mining. To understand the contestation, a contextual analysis was carried out. Selected wetland conditions and ecosystem services, along with user perceptions and the value of wetland-use, were assessed. Wetlands were observably in a relatively healthy condition. The resilience of wetlands and the efficiency of the ecosystem services they offer, especially in mediating water quality, were clear. The early results indicated a healthy landscape despite multiple-user impact from human activity. The health scores and provision of ecosystem services, along with the identified National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas (NFEPAs) and red-listed fauna and flora, provide a substantial grounding for advocating the conservation of the wetlands of the contested X11B catchment. When water quality measures were added to the wetland health and ecosystem service assessment, low pH levels and high electrical conductivity were recorded. Both measures indicate coal mining impacts, more specifically Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) impacts, since AMD typically has sulphate as the dominant salt ion, and high concentrations of trace elements and metal ions. Concentrations breaching the recommended resource quality objectives (RQOs) of trace elements and ions, found in fertilizers and pesticides, were recorded in most sites, suggesting agricultural impacts on the landscape’s hydrology. Further, these agricultural impacts would add to the compromising effect of the wetlands’ capacity to remove pollutants from the water body. Livestock farming on all sites were also near wetlands which may have limited the vegetation cover of grazed land, so increasing runoff and the volume of water entering wetlands and compromising their ecosystem services. Poor water quality has implications for biophysical processes, which play an important role in the functioning of wetlands, for the benefit of users. Without the water quality measures, ecosystem health and ecosystem service methodology used suggested a healthy catchment. However, simple field water quality measures indicated past and present mining impacts. Therefore, the mandatory use of water chemistry is recommended in the assessment of wetlands in catchments with past and present mining activity taking place. Without this, repercussions would include wetland loss, and a more thorough investigation into the water quality and its effects on the wetland ecosystems is suggested. Further ecological investigation of water chemistry (heavy metals, ions, nutrients and trace elements) and macroinvertebrate assemblages identified links to water chemistry impacts on macroinvertebrate abundance and diversity. Abundance results based on the presence, absence and abundance of macroinvertebrates at the different sites did not reveal any clear patterns associated with different landscape users. Diversity, on the other hand, was related to land-use, where sites with high mining use had lower macroinvertebrate diversity than other sites. Related, concurrent, hydro-pedology research produced a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of mining on hydro-connectivity that clearly indicates mining as the cause of long-term deterioration of functional wetland health in a way that is practically impossible to restore. This study suggests that wetlands provide a strong ecosystem service of intermittent resetting of the wetland sediment adsorptive capacity for toxic metal and other salt ions. The hypothesis arising from the work is that, in the case of another heavy rainfall event, the town of Carolina risks another AMD crisis. As sediments are likely to be accumulating and saturated with toxic metal ions. Further AMD-related changes in acidity will increase the mobilisation of adsorbed ions. Future flooding and flushing of wetlands will therefore once again move toxic metal ions through the system, and possibly re-contaminate the Boesmanspruit dam. The value of the study is in delivering specific evidence on the impacts of mining (and to a lesser extent agriculture) on wetland quality. Overall, this study, combined with additional research, indicates that in the X11B catchment, mining impacts are long-term and more serious than agriculture. In terms of contestation the research indicates that reliance on bio-physical data and knowledge is inadequate in resolving conflict between coal mining and other land- and water-users. The study demonstrates the necessity of insight into the social system and the value of a transdisciplinary approach in addressing land-use conflicts and wetland protection.
PublisherRhodes University
PublisherFaculty of Science, Institute for Water Research