Also published in: Landscape SA – July/August 2005

landscapesaRehabilitation of Iraqi wetlands between the Tigris and Euphrates, an area originally comprising over 20 000 square kilometers and home to the 5 000 year old culture of the “Marsh Arabs”, represents a challenge for South Africans to implement local strategies for indigenous plant and animal rehabilitation, according to Zingela Consulting’s Mike Zingel.

“Environmental stories like this captivate imaginations internationally,” says Zingel. “However, we as South Africans have done just as much, if not more, damage to our own ecosystems after years of land abuse. It’s seemingly much less dramatic because the current state of degradation has taken many more years to achieve and cannot be pinned to the power of a single dictator,” he says.

Facing an uprising from the “Marsh Arabs” after the last Gulf War, Saddam Hussein realised, according to media reports, that he stood little chance against a people who called a maze of waterways and thick reed beds home. Hussein’s military and political solution was simply to drain the marshes. By 2003, only seven percent of the wetlands remained. With the water went the entire wetland ecosystem, fishing stocks collapsed and the livelihood and traditional way of life of a whole people was destroyed. Up to 80 000 people fled to camps in Iran – once again proving that an environmental catastrophe inevitably results in a human catastrophe too.

The good news in Iraq, according to Egypt Today magazine’s Richard Hoath, is that with the destruction of the barriers built by Hussein to direct water away from the marshes, 20 percent of the area has now been reflooded. In addition, it’s believed that despite salinity challenges, more can be restored in the future and that the area shows clear signs of effective rehabilitation.

According to Zingel, published data reveals that 50% of the world’s wetlands have been lost due to human intervention. “The rehabilitation of land demands attention to the restoration of the wetland component,” says Zingel. “Fortunately, the rehabilitation of wetlands in South Africa can be quick with the closing of drainage furrows and the removal of trees from the area will bring about rapid change,” he says.

“In more recent years, developers, architects and engineers have taken much more interest in the impact their work has had on the environment. The result is that many new developments make use of indigenous plants and attempt to have a minimal impact on the environment.

“The same cannot be said for developments, including recreational areas such as golf courses, which pre-date environmental sensitivities. That said, like the rehabilitation of Iraqi wetlands, much can be done to rehabilitate the environment,” Zingel says.

According to Zingel, the replacement of exotic vegetation with indigenous vegetation forms a critically important part of rehabilitation. Prime outdoor sites for recreation have almost been designed and built with exotic vegetation because the plants were perceived to be pleasing to the eye and suitable for growth in years past. “What you find is that many golf courses, especially well-established ones, feature oaks, willows, eucalyptus and poplar trees. There is now a big move afoot worldwide to move back to indigenous vegetation,” he says.

The principle, according to Zingel, is that most South African creatures – from insects right through to amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, thrive with the re-introduction of indigenous material – plants with which they have evolved over millions of years. At a basic level, the rehabilitation of compromised land needs to be developed and managed in such a way to restore the balance of nature.

Regardless of the rehabilitation plan or the ambitious introduction of large mammals, the success and overall wealth of a wildlife environment is literally associated at a “grass roots” level. Grasses, and the species of grasses are critical to the overall health of the ecosystem says Zingel.

Reclamation of eroded areas is often a more pressing rehabilitation requirement. Zingel emphasises that the identification of the root causes is the first step so that a strategy can be developed. After that first aid can be applied.

Common causes of erosion are trampling, rain drop impact and sun baking of unvegetated soil. These conditions reduce the up-take of rain by the soil and result in eroding run-off.

Choosing indigenous plant species adapted to an area under restoration is very important. Tree species are more conspicuous and recognisable than grasses. However grasses and the natural succession from pioneer species to climax is equally important, according to Zingel.

Having chosen the species for rehabilitation, it is then important to employ effective methods of establishment and the protection of the young plants.

“Awareness of the need to rehabilitate wildlife areas has never been greater,” says Zingel. “We see good progress around the world with projects such as Iraq’s wetland rehabilitation. Local action needs to be taken and this requires attention to the basics and the guidance of professionals,” he concludes.