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South Africa’s Wetlands: Why Wetlands are Important

02 February 2021

Wetland, marsh, bog, moor, swamp, mire. While wetlands play an important part in the balance of the natural ecology, they are often among the less-loved biomes that are naturally formed on our planet.

So why do people inherently dislike wetlands? While wetlands are characteristically damp, smelly, and home to numerous insects, they are vitally important to our existence. This is why the 2nd of February is recognised as World Wetlands Day.

On the 2nd of February 1971, the Iranian City of Ramsar adopted the “Ramsar Convention on Wetlands”. Since 1997, the Ramsar Secretariat has provided materials to raise awareness of the importance and value of wetlands across the world.

Interestingly, South Africa became the fifth contracting party signing the Ramsar Convention in 1971 which is why World Wetlands Day is still recognised in South Africa today.

Let’s continue the support of World Wetlands day by learning why wetlands are important.

What are the Wetlands?

Wetlands are naturally occurring areas of land that become seasonally or permanently saturated with water.

While the characteristics of a wetland differ from environment to environment depending on where they occur in the world, they are all commonly important for biodiversity and the lives of humans and animals.

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Water Quality and Water Supply

South Africa is classified as a water-scarce country and many of our natural streams are polluted. Wetlands play an important role in removing the toxins and sediment from the water to improve the overall quality of the water.

In other words, wetlands act as a natural filter trapping the sediment in the soil and remove the pollutants. This acts as a natural purification process leaving the water cleaner than what it was when it arrived either from rain or from a nearby stream.

Wetlands act as large, natural sponges. Water is absorbed by the soil and slowly released back into streams. This helps water-scarce countries, like South Africa, in dry seasons when little rainfall occurs thus reducing the severity of droughts, or floods.

Because of this, wetlands also help to prevent soil erosion. When soil remains damp and filled with sediment, erosion from harsh sunlight will not easily occur.

A Natural Home and Food Source

While construction in and around wetland areas poses numerous challenges for humans, they are home to numerous animals and plants. As a result, the biodiversity around wetland areas is extremely high.

The wetland areas provide both food and shelter for a variety of animals including birds like flamingos and amphibians like frogs.

Fish also thrive in wetlands, particularly juvenile fish. This is due to the water being shallow, calm and full of nourishment.

The wetlands are also popular grazing grounds for livestock like cattle and sheep. The variety of grass types and the supply of running, clean water is extremely beneficial for livestock.

Many governments, including South Africa, encourage farmers to convert their wetlands for agricultural activities.

Wetland areas have also proven to attract numerous animal species because of the rich biodiversity in the area. This, in turn, helps to keep the natural balance in the ecosystems regulated.

Urban Wetlands

Wetlands are not only important for natural ecosystems and maintaining balance, but also play a vital role in making cities safer and more sustainable. To further iterate this point, this year’s theme for 2018s World Wetlands Day was ‘Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future.”

According to Ramsar, “Wetlands are essential and contribute to making cities liveable.”

During excessive rainfall or floods, urban wetlands absorb the excess rainfall preventing flood damage to the city. The vegetation found in urban wetlands also absorbs domestic and industrial waste, filtering it to improve the quality of the water. The same as in a natural wetland!

As such, urban wetlands provide cities and towns with clean, filtered water and also act as recreational areas for people to enjoy.

The continuous expansion of cities, as a result of the growing population, poses a great concern for wetland conservation. Many cities encroach on wetlands by using them as dumping ground which leaves them severely degraded or completely destroy them for additional expansion space.

Ramsar encourages city planners to preserve and integrate urban wetlands for economic, social and cultural gain.

South Africa’s Wetlands

South Africa has 23 Ramsar wetland sites across the country which cover a large total of 557,028 hectares.



Western Cape

Bot-Kleinmond Estuarine System


False Bay Nature Reserve

De Hoop Vlei

De Mond

Prince Edward Islands


Wilderness Lakes


Natal Drakensberg Park

Kosi Bay

Lake Sibaya

Ndumo Game Reserve

Ntsikeni Nature Reserve

St. Lucia System

Turtle Beaches/Coral Reefs of Tongaland

uMgeni Vlei Nature Reserve


Verloren Valei Nature Reserve


Makuleke Wetlands

Nylsvley Nature Reserve



Free State

Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve

North West


Northern Cape

Orange River Mouth



Wetlands are vital to the existence of humans and animal life alike especially in a water-scarce country like South Africa. This World Wetlands Day let’s celebrate the continuous importance of nature to our survival.

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