PICS: Lake St Lucia forcibly choked as drought grips iSimangaliso

2016-03-17 07:35 - Selene Brophy
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Cape Town - The fresh water currently flowing into iSimangaliso’s Lake St Lucia Estuary from the uMfolozi River as a result of recent rain is a godsend, says iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis, but unfortunately the down side to this is that a court settlement agreement reached with uMfolozi Sugar Planters UCOSP in relation to flood protection for the farmers is forcing iSimangaliso to put up a breach of the uMfolozi River out to sea.

The startling reality is that more than 90% of St Lucia's surface water has dried up, with 315km2 of the 350km2 lake bed lies exposed and barren, ravaged by the drought.

Respite came between 12 and 14 March 2016 when some 6.2 billion litres of fresh water entered the Lake St Lucia system, following rains both in the catchment and locally, providing a crucial buffer against the possibility of continued low rainfall over the next six months.

"Given that 60% of Lake St Lucia’s fresh water comes from the uMfolozi, these are the first significant flows of water into the system since December 2015 and it is hoped that some of the negative impacts of the drought will be reduced,” says iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis.

Satellite photos supplied by iSimangaliso show exactly how dire the situation is and demonstrates why the water flowing into the Estuary (especially when we are heading onto a winter no rainfall season) is so critical, says the park. 

However on 12 March 2016, iSimangaliso received notification from UCOSP that water levels had reached 1.2msl (above sea level) at the Cotcane measuring gauge and should begin the process of establishing a breach of the uMfolozi River out to sea.

This notification follows from an interim settlement agreement that was made an order of court in October 2015, and which is valid until May 2016.

Excavators have been deployed to the beach and work is underway to put up breach which sees valuable freshwater being forced out to sea instead of being allowed to flow towards drought-hit Lake St Lucia. 

"Thousands of litres of fresh water will be lost to the Lake St Lucia system,"Zaloumis told Traveller24

Spillway flowing into the St Lucia Estuary on 14 March 2016

"What little water is left is five times saltier than the sea in places. The highest tolerance level for estuarine species is between two and three times saltier than the sea." 

UCOSP and two farmers launched an application in the High Court in August 2015 to compel iSimangaliso to breach the uMfolozi river mouth to the sea. The application was launched on an urgent basis to enable the draining of floodwaters from less than 94ha or 1% of the 9 427ha of land under sugarcane on the uMfolozi floodplain.

This matter has been set down for May 2016.

However the interim court settlement in place until then requires iSimangaliso to "breach the mouth at a point of its choosing" when the Msunduze water levels reach 1.2gmsl (Sea Level) at Cotcane, as it now has according to UCOSP. 

Traveller24 contacted UCOSP, to find out what other methods of flood protection are being considered for the sugar cane farmers considering the devastating effects the breach together with the drought are having on the communities and wildlife of the UNESCO world heritage site. UCOSP has yet to respond.

Zaloumis told Traveller24 that in the spirit of collaboration, iSimangaliso has been in discussion with UCOSP since 2008, when iSimangaliso began the review of the management strategy for the Estuary.

However, according to Zaloumis, commitments to improve their flood protection by UCOSP have yet to be fulfilled.

“We are extremely concerned about the possible adverse ecological impacts to Lake St Lucia from the breaching of the uMfolozi River to the sea, as well as the possible knock-on effects on the livelihoods of many people, particularly in light of the poor winter rain that has been forecast.  

"2015 was recorded as the lowest rainfall year since 1920,” says Zaloumis.

iSimangaliso’s Lake St Lucia Estuary is a one-of-a-kind. It is the world's oldest protected estuary and Africa’s largest estuarine system, as well as the focal point of the UNESCO World Heritage Listing. It has been a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance since 1986.

It is not only of global ecological significance, but also of regional and local economic importance.

(Carl Brook, Facebook)

(Carl Brook, Facebook)

More than 50% of all water birds in KwaZulu-Natal feed, roost and nest in this estuary. Of the 155 fish species that have been recorded in the Lake St Lucia estuarine system, 71 species use St Lucia as a nursery area and at least 24 of these are important in marine line fisheries. 

"Harvests of raw materials, particularly estuarine sedges, are estimated to be worth around R7,5 million a year.  The contribution of the estuarine floodplain areas to livestock grazing is estimated at R3,6 million per year.

"Tourism related to the St Lucia estuary area employs an estimated 1291 direct full-time equivalent jobs and 6924 indirect jobs.  There are about 510 000 visitors to the study area per annum, of whom 42% are foreign visitors, that spend R46 million on an estimated 157 000 tourism activities from local operators.

"iSimangaliso has not been idle in working towards the hydrological restoration of Africa’s greatest wetland.  Cyclone Engineering, the company awarded the contract to remove the dredge spoil, is establishing site. This is arguably the biggest wetland rehabilitation in the world, and a milestone in the healing of the Lake St Lucia Estuary,” says Andrew Zaloumis.