Project: Advancing water and income security in the unique Maputaland Coastal Plain

ASSET Research, in collaboration with SAEON as the lead organisation, was awarded funding by the WRC for the project entitled Advancing water and income security in the unique Maputaland Coastal Plain. 

The Lake Sibaya catchment within Maputaland Coastal Plain (MCP) located in the northeastern Kwazulu Natal Province in South African (fig 1 and 2) is unique in that it is a ground water-driven system, with no surface rivers importing water into it. Importantly, it is thus entirely dependent on localized rainfall for recharge. Water security within the region has declined significantly over the past two decades, leading to the degradation of water-dependent ecosystems and the livelihood services they provide. The net effect is escalating conflict over ecosystems resources which humans use (wetland/swamp forest for cultivation), human use of water (abstraction) and licencing for "Stream Flow" Reduction Activities (SFRA) (commercial forestry). The driest year on record for the area was within this period (2015/16) as well as an anomalous extended dry period, with evidence of extreme temperatures impacting on crop health (Jan 2020). Concurrently, commercial forces try activities have increased in and new initiatives to test alternative agroforestry crops such as macadamia are emerging. Policy implementation (e.g., SFRA licensing) and mitigation action is being hampered by a perception of limited livelihood alternatives, coupled with significant knowledge gaps in the impact of different land management options on the water resource and the potential occurrence of climate extremes under climate change.

To understand these dynamics in relation to the net environmental and economic impact of land use decisions within the region, ASSET Research in collaboration with SAEON the lead organisation was awarded funding by WRC to conduct a study (ongoing). The research study which is currently underway examines the system-wide impacts, using a scenario-based approach, of the combined impacts of changes in climate and land-use/land-cover on the hydrological resources of the MCP, with ensuing feedback. This feedback refers to the effects the hydrological changes have on the livelihoods of people and land-use decisions in a continuous loop. We do so by making key advancements in the hydrological and climatological knowledge for the MCP and use a system dynamics model to integrate these within an environmental resource economics context. The expected results will render a range of plausible livelihood (socio-economic) impacts of the anticipated changes in climate and resultant hydrology linked to various land-use/land-cover changes. Measures that can help mitigate the environmental and economic consequences of extreme events such as floods, recurrent droughts and heatwaves, can thus be identified by understanding the interconnections between land management, climate and economics and the influences of these on the water resource. This undertaking is interdisciplinary research consisting of different individuals or teams - to provide an environmental and natural resource economics perspective, Sulinkhundla Maseko is part of the team (ASSET Research) - a recent MSc agricultural economics graduate (specializing in environmental and natural resource economics) from the University of Pretoria under the supervision of Prof James Blignaut and Sue van Rensburg.

Figures 1 and 2 showing the catchment W70A boundary by Bruce Kelbe and Google earth respectively

To develop a contextual understanding of the region, we focus on three lenses; the socio-cultural lens, land use/cover lens and the economic lens.

The socio-cultural lens

Stakeholder participation is increasingly recognized as the best approach to efficiently manage natural resources. It embraces diverse local knowledge and values. The idea is to develop a broad understanding of the existing institutions in the region to frame objectives/decisions to those that can improve outcomes.  The catchment area W70A is home to three main tribes, namely; Tembe, Mabaso and Zikhali local communities. They are the major land custodians in the region covering around 60% of the Umhlabuyalingana municipality. As the major land custodians in the region, - policy development that is intended to foster sustainable management of water resources in the region should appreciate local values and reach a common ground where there are differences between different groups, keeping in mind that natural resources have different uses and users.

Land use lens

The study will evaluate livelihood options and make inferences on which options are sustainable in the region (improve income and water security). Land use often corresponds with the socio-economic description of an area. In classical economics, land is a major factor in production that provides economic and social benefits. Over the past decades, the catchment W70A experienced massive changes in its landscape.  Changes in land use have an impact on population distribution, socioeconomic status, and the environment. The catchment area is mainly rural and sparsely populated with a growing number of urban centres under Umhlabuyalingana Municipality i.e., Manguzi and Mseleni.

Land use in the region is centered around hydrological resources; water ecosystems play a major part in the region’s rich biodiversity. As a result, some portions of the region are conservation sites Tembe Elephant park (30 000hectares), iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Mnguzi forest reserve (237ha), etc. Commercial forests are the major land use, which has rapidly grown since their introduction in the region in the 1950s (Van Wyk, 2003). They are predominantly found around the lake Sibayi (Mbazwana and Mandzengwenya plantations).  The MCP has sandy soils which are infertile and have low agricultural potential. In addition, crop production is risky because of the limited access to water and variable climatic conditions (prolonged dry periods). Agricultural land uses in the region include grazing land, commercial and subsistence crop production plots.

The economic lens

The MCP is a land of extremes, with a pristine landscape along with a dire socioeconomic situation. The region has a high incidence of poverty driven by the high unemployment rate (47%) and the limited livelihood opportunities (Stats SA, 2011). The region’s economy is dependent on natural resources with the major formal sectors (commercial/intensive agriculture, forestry, and tourism) and informal sectors (agricultural commodities, fishing and craft markets, etc). Households practice subsistence farming in backyard gardens. Poor soils limit available agricultural land which is worsened by the expansion of human settlements. Agricultural production varies throughout the region depending on water accessibility and the amount of land available, thus agriculturL plots can be found in wetland (swamp forests). Households produce cotton, maize, beans, mango, coconut, cassava, and Lala palms, etc. Since its introduction in the region in the 1950s, the forestry sector has grown rapidly to be among the biggest economic activities in the region. It was introduced by the government to foster economic development in the region. Tourism is another major economic activity, owing to the exceptional biodiversity in the region. The conversation sites in the region provide local communities with livelihood opportunities (employment opportunities, agricultural commodities, and craft sales to tourists). According to the UNWTO (2021), sustainable tourism sites conserve the environment, are built with the socio-cultural identity of host communities, and ensure viable and sustainable economic benefits. Local people are also able to harvest reeds within protected areas to craft that they sell to tourists.

Land-use change is necessary for fostering economic development in the region. However, the consequences of the current land use and the rapid change in land use over the past decades have not yielded rapid gains in the socioeconomic status of the region. To be fair, the current unemployment rate is a significant improvement from two decades ago (69%). However, the land uses in the region are exerting unsustainable pressure on water resources. The major ones being municipality supply (settlements), agricultural production, and forest plantations.  For instance, afforestation in the region has been found to negatively impact hydrological resources in the region (Everson, 2019; Ramjeawon et al., 2020). Consequently, there has been a significant decline in water levels in Lake Sibaya. The reduction is also attributed to the changing climate - decline in annual average precipitation and prolonged dry periods. On this trajectory, the increased scarcity will lead to conflicts and worsen poverty in the region. There is a need for practical solutions to the existing problem. The need for livelihood options that will ensure sustainable management of water resources and foster socio-economic development under changing climatic conditions.

Project researcher: Sulinkhundla Maseko