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Inland waters of southern Africa

“South Africa is a water
scarce country –  the 30th
driest in the world.”

By: Lucky Dlamini (SAIAB Communications Officer)

On 22 March every year, people and organisations around the world mark World Water Day by raising awareness of the global water crisis. This year, the core focus of the observance is to support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDFG) 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030 (United Nations Water).

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The 2021 theme is “valuing water” and the focus is much more than what it costs. The choice of this theme is to show the enormous and complex value that water holds for households, food, economies and the integrity of our natural environment. While awareness around water tends to focus on clean water and sanitation for humanity, people often forget about the vast number of animals that live in the water that are as dependent on water as humans – which humans, in turn, rely on for propagating food. This wealth of biodiversity is essential for the health of the world’s rivers, lakes and wetlands; and supports societies, livelihoods and economies across the globe. Our rivers and wetlands are the pulses responsible for keeping a number of our ecosystem services and biodiversity thriving. River ecosystems are vital for transporting water to households and providing habitat for a range of species, with both intrinsic and economic value.  Accordingly, researchers at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) are studying freshwater ecosystems as part of their mission to help environmental policy makers and managers preserve the integrity of our natural environment.


SAIAB students and interns with park rangers from SANParks, setting out a seine net for data collection along the Wit River
among the Zuurberg Mountains in the Greater Addo Elephant National Park to look at migration barriers and meet some
fishes as part of World Fish Migration Day 2018 celebrations.

According to a report on The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in Southern Africa, by the IUCN Global Species Programme, in collaboration with SAIAB and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), this regional assessment found that, “The inland waters of southern Africa support a high diversity of aquatic species with high levels of endemism. Many of these species provide direct (e.g. fisheries) and indirect (e.g. water purification) benefits to people. The conservation of these species is most important to the livelihoods and economies of the regions’ people.” Further, according to SANBI’s National Biodiversity Assessment, in South Africa, freshwater fish are the most threatened of all groups, with one in three species facing extinction.  In addition, the IUCN Species Programme also found that, “many freshwater fish, crabs, dragonflies, molluscs and aquatic plants are at risk of extinction in southern Africa if its rivers and lakes are not protected”. Some of these freshwater fishes provide food for local people and some of them, such as the molluscs, help purify drinking water.  

Water related challenges are increasingly being associated with the negative impacts of climate change, which in most parts is causing rising temperatures, shifting rainfall patterns and the increasing variability in rainfall. Climate change has not only marked a reduction in freshwater for humankind, but it is also making waters too warm for many other species and biodiversity.

A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund and 15 nongovernmental organisations and alliances, titled the World’s Forgotten Fishes, mentions that freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in the oceans or forests. “Mainly, freshwater species in southern Africa are threatened by habitat destruction, hydropower dams on free-flowing rivers, over-abstraction of water, pollution, mining and overfishing” (IUCN Red List assessment of freshwater fishes). According to the Saving Sandfish project by the FRC, “the sandfish is South Africa’s most threatened migratory freshwater fish. It’s so scarce that it’s known to spawn in only two small tributaries of the Doring River – the Biedouw and Oorlogskloof — and has disappeared from the Olifants River Catchment.”

Sadly, South Africa’s unique freshwater biodiversity is under enormous pressure from climate change, human activities, and invasive species. This can have severe consequences for ecosystem services, such as the provision of food and safe, clean drinking water. Furthermore, as in many parts of the world facing water challenges, another threat is water scarcity. Many parts of South Africa are suffering from a serious continuing drought and as human populations grow and consumption patterns change, the pressure on natural water resources continues to increase. “South Africa is already a water scarce country, the 30th driest in the world” (WWF-South Africa). According to the non-profit Freshwater Research Centre (FRC), “Southern Africa is considered a ‘critical region’ of water stress, and scientists have identified the region as a climate change hotspot, expected to warm twice as fast at the global average rate of temperature increase.”

The infographic below shows the current status of freshwater fish as outlined in the World’s Forgotten Fishes report:

Changes in water resource will have consequences for several sectors. Moreover, wetlands and aquatic ecosystems will be threatened. In essence, if we overlook the value of water, our freshwater species and their contribution to maintaining a healthy ecosystem and livelihoods, means that we risk mismanaging this infinite and irreplaceable resource. How we manage this vital resource is essential for humanity as a whole, and to counterbalance the effects of climate change. To save biodiversity we need to protect our freshwater ecosystems so we can continue to meet the needs of people and nature for water.



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