Our Burning Planet

OUR BURNING PLANET

‘It’s a waste’: Muizenberg residents rubbish wetland restoration effort

The Working for Wetlands Programme in partnership with the City of Cape Town began the restoration of the wetland along the western side of the Zandvlei Estuary on 1 June 2021. (Photo:City of Cape Town)

Attempts by the City of Cape Town to restore an old wetland have been met with contempt from residents who say the city should focus on keeping existing waterways clean before creating new ones.

The City of Cape Town has begun restoration efforts on a section of the Zandvlei estuary in Muizenberg, saying this will revive the biodiversity of the area.

“The project aims to improve not only the wetland habitat, but provide an area where recreational users can learn more about wetland ecology and the value of these systems to every person on the planet,” said Marian Nieuwoudt, the city’s mayoral committee member for spatial planning and the environment.  

Despite the ecological benefit of restoring the wetland, Muizenberg resident Mark Williams told Daily Maverick he was worried about the establishment of a wetland when an existing estuary close by was filled with waste. Williams said volunteers had cleaned the vlei since 2020 to reduce waste on the estuary banks and in the surrounding reeds. The only cleaning by CapeNature that takes place, he said, is the emptying of bins on Mondays.

“I have concerns… it’s a waste of money. They could have rather used that money to use that same bulldozer and remove the sandbanks,” said Williams. “The sandbanks stop the flow of water in and out.” This negatively affected the movement of fish into the ocean. 

Anna Wade, a realtor and Muizenberg resident, started a Zandvlei estuary clean-up initiative in October 2020 after seeing an uncontrollable amount of waste in and around the vlei. She is worried that the wetland will be treated like the estuary, especially considering Muizenberg’s strong winds which distribute litter.

“My concerns would be, of course, whether they are able to MAINTAIN (sic) it,” Wade told Daily Maverick. “This is a huge concern for the water quality and wildlife. So what is the point of having another wetland which ultimately encourages wildlife if it will be filled with pollution and create a stench from not being cared for or constantly maintained?” 

Clean-up volunteer Grace Coates agreed: “It is common to see plastic bags floating in the water, chip packets and other rubbish caught in the reeds, as well as fishing line and polystyrene boxes discarded by those who fish there.” On Sundays, often large birds could be seen tearing up plastic and polystyrene food containers from recent braais. 

According to the city, the wetland was once part of the now polluted Zandvlei estuary. The area had been covered up in the 1940s and filled with large amounts of building rubble and general waste, but plans were to restore it to create an ecological corridor connecting Table Mountain to the Zandvlei Nature Reserve water body.

The Zandvlei estuary is one of two functioning estuaries among the 10 water bodies in the city and places the responsibility for managing the wetland and the estuary at the door of Zandvlei Protected Area Advisory Committee

The wetland, situated within the Zandvlei flood area, will be under the umbrella of the protected area network and will form part of an ecological corridor within an urban settlement, connecting Table Mountain National Park with the Zandvlei Nature Reserve waterbody. The  Zandvlei Protected Area Advisory Committee will play an important role in managing and monitoring the area, the City said. 

Residents are worried that the wetland restoration will befall the same fate as the rest of the polluted Zandvlei estuary. (Photo: Xabiso Mkhabela)

Kate Snaddon, a Cape Town wetland ecologist for the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s Working for Wetlands project, told Daily Maverick on a video call that the aim must be to restore wetlands where they should exist. 

“The connection between the water that flows through that catchment and the soils on which that water should accumulate and the wetland that should develop, have been destroyed. So this is to try and reverse that process,” Snaddon said. “You can see in winter, when it rains a lot and the ground is really wet, quite a lot of water accumulates there.”

One of the most important roles of wetlands is purifying urban runoff (such as from roads and railways lines), Snaddon said. Sediments carried in the runoff sink to the ground as they are filtered and create cleaner water that ends up in estuaries, rivers and eventually the ocean, improving overall water quality. This recharges groundwater, cleaning water and providing biodiversity benefits. 

“The effects of healthy catchment areas contribute to the quantity and quality of freshwater systems — above and below ground level — and play a vital role in water security,” Nieuwoudt said. 

The city plans to plant indigenous species such as Cape thatching reed, swamp grass, knobby club-rush and sea-rose. Nieuwoudt told Daily Maverick the locally indigenous plants are suited to the local environment and wetland conditions. 

Not only is planting locally indigenous plants best practice, but also forms an important part of the natural heritage of Cape Town and South Africa as a whole,” the mayoral committee member said. Planting will start at the end of June 2021. 

Nieuwoudt told Daily Maverick that the National Biodiversity Assessment 2018 has placed wetlands among the most threatened ecosystems in South Africa.

According to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, 65% of local wetlands are under threat, with 48% critically endangered. A change in rainfall patterns as a result of climate change makes the role of wetlands even more important in reducing the effects of floods and droughts. 

“Cape Town is no exception (to threatened wetlands) and opportunities to protect, enhance and restore these critically important ecosystems are essential for the long-term sustainability of the city,” Nieuwoudt said. 

A GroundUp report based on a city study showed that over the past 40 years, water quality in estuaries has been declining due to pollution and sewage spills containing E.coli. According to the study, the water had become so polluted that swimming and walking through it were prohibited, although quality has improved over the past few years.

The long-term challenge will be to keep the invasive grass and other alien plant species from invading the wetland and to keep litter out of the system, Nieuwoudt said. DM/OBP

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