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 north eastern KwaZulu Natal Province in South African 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 decline in water security in the region can be seen in figure 1 (gif file), which shows changes in water levels in lake Sibaya between 2001 to 2020. 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.

Figure 1: Water level changes in lake Sibaya between 2001 and 2020

Source: Keneilwe Hlahane

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 the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) the lead organisation was awarded funding by Water Research Commission (WRC) to conduct a research project (ongoing).  The study examines uses 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 interdisciplinary study involves economics, climate and hydrology which will be integrated using an economic model. Economics provide the best way to understand the impact of changes in and/or management of natural resources on society’s wellbeing.

Figures 2 and 3 showing the catchment W70A boundary

Sources: Bruce Kelbe and Google earth

We conducted a desktop study, with a view to develop contextual understanding of the area,  by the focusing on the socio-cultural identity, land use/cover and the economy.

The socio-cultural lens

The catchment W70A within which the lake Sibaya catchment is located, is home to 3 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 within which lake Sibaya catchment area is also located. Therefore, policy development that is intended to foster sustainable management of water resources in the region should appreciate local values to enable a conducive environment to execute projects (research or development) that are accepted and understands stands their needs. There have been instances within the region in the last decades whereby projects were met with hostility for being imported to the region without engagement with the land custodians, consequently, this project is co-developed with the 3 tribal councils by holding annual workshops over the span of the 3-year project. Engagement is also important because of the lake Sibaya water system possessing public good characteristics, that it is nonexcludable.

Land use lens

The study evaluates the impact of land use activities on water resources under changing climatic conditions. 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 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., Mbazwana, Manguzi and Mseleni.

Human activities in the region are concentrated in the vicinity of 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 iSimangaliso Wetland Park, etc. Commercial forest plantations are the major land use, and have grown rapidly since their introduction in the region in the 1950s (Van Wyk, 2003). They are predominantly found around the lake Sibaya (Mbazwana and Mandzengwenya plantations).  The lake Sibaya catchment has low agricultural potential because of the sandy infertile soils. In addition, crop production is risky because of the limited access to water and variable climatic conditions (prolonged dry periods). This explains small size of the area under cultivation. 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. Despite improvement in socioeconomic status over the decades, the region still has high incidence of poverty which is driven by high unemployment rate and the limited livelihood opportunities.  The economy is directly dependent on natural resources with the major economic sectors being forestry, ecotourism, and agriculture (crop cultivation and livestock).

Forest plantations were introduced in the area by the government in the 1950s, to expand livelihood opportunities for the rural population, over the years the sector has been increasingly perceived as the major and viable economic activity in the area. The sector creates opportunities for the unskilled and semi-skilled individuals who are the vast majority of population in the area. Moreover, the forestry industry is a livelihood for smallholder farmers who are able to generate income on small pieces of land (< 5 hectares). Unsurprisingly, agriculture is among the major activities in the area despite the infertile soils and variable climatic conditions in the region. Most of agricultural activities are limited to subsistence or small scale (madumbe (taro), groundnuts, cassava, sweet potato), with few commercialised (macadamia and banana). What catches the eyes is the scale of wetland farming in the region, which is observable around lake Sibaya. Households are also involved in livestock farming (cattle, goats, poultry), which happens in communal land. The MCP landscape has an exceptionally high concentration of biodiversity which makes it suitable for tourism investment and conservation. Ecotourism has the potential to sustainably conserve the environment and offer employment opportunities and craft sales market to locals.

Land-use change is necessary in advancing economic development in the region. However, the current land use activities are exerting unsustainable pressure on water resources. The major ones include forest plantations and intensive agriculture.  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 – from the decline in annual average precipitation and prolonged dry periods. On this trajectory, the increased water security threat will lead to conflicts and worsen poverty in the region as livelihood opportunities become limited. Thus, the need for practical solutions to the existing problem. The need for land use activities that will ensure sustainable/restorative management of water resources and foster socio-economic development under changing climatic conditions. The environment is our greatest ASSET we must protect it!

Project researcher: Sulinkhundla Maseko

Sulinkhundla Maseko is an environmental and resource economist (intern) at ASSET Research, working on this project under the supervision of Prof James Blignaut and Sue van Rensburg.