In Namaqualand, Water for All
© CI/Photo by Michael Matarasso
Molly Bergen

Situated in the Northern cape province of South Africa, Namaqualand is known for its open spaces and rare species such as the speckled cape tortoise (Homopus signatus) - the world’s smallest tortoise. The sunny grasslands known as the veld provide an ideal habitat for many types of flowers that bloom by the thousands every spring. About 1,000 of the area’s 3,500 wildflower species are found nowhere else in the world.

The region is also home to 26,000 people who are slowly losing their main water source.

Wetlands as a Life Force

The abundant biodiversity of the region is largely supported by the Kamiesberg mountain range, an important rain catchment surrounded by wetlands. The sporadic rainfall and semi-arid climate make the wetland resources of Namaqualand especially valuable.

But the area’s rivers and surrounding wetlands are essential not only for wildlife, but also for the survival of local people. Along with the drinking water supply for surrounding towns, the veld provides prime livestock pasture. As a result, most locals rely on herding sheep and goats for their livelihood.

Conservation International (CI) is partnering with Working for Wetlands and other South African organizations to educate local people about the unique ecological benefits of their homeland, and to restore its ecosystems for the benefit of future generations.

The Impact of Overgrazing

The region is divided into public and private territories, which impacts how herders use the land. Communal farmers graze their animals on large common areas managed by local municipalities, while commercial farmers manage their herds on private tracts. Although income and education levels vary between the groups of farmers, all of them rely on the land for survival.

Whether they use public or private land, all people in this rural region are seeing overgrazing impact their environment; erosion, loss of vegetation and wetland degradation are some of the effects. Although most farmers are aware of the need to rotate their herds through different fields to prevent overgrazing, they often find themselves without a choice.

Broken water pumps in drier areas sit unfixed and unused for years, meaning that herders must restrict their animals to the wettest regions at all times, exacerbating wetland destruction. Goats in particular can be especially harmful to the environment, as they are less discriminate grazers than sheep. Studies have shown that wetland protection is critical in order to sustain the area and its people in the future.

Wetlands are also the most desirable area for cropping and are first choice when it comes to which piece of land to bush-clear for fields. This further restricts the ability of wetlands to absorb and keep water through the long, dry summers, releasing at a slow, sustainable rate.

Surveying the Locals

In November 2008, CI conducted a survey among communal farmers, commercial farmers, and municipal workers within the Kamiesberg region. The purpose of the survey was to evaluate local awareness of environmental issues in the area, as well as receptivity to potential solutions.

More than 75 percent of communal farmers surveyed admitted they did not know the function of a wetland within an ecosystem. In addition, 97 percent of communal farmers did not know the maximum number of goats that could be sustained on a 10-hectare patch of land. This limited knowledge provides insight on the current overgrazing problems and underscores the need for further education.

Protecting Their Own Lands

In response to the survey, CI has devised a new conservation plan for the region that will restore degraded areas while educating local people about how to better manage their environment and improve their lives in the process. As part of the larger Namaqua National Park Wilderness Corridor, which aims to bring both communal and commercial lands under conservation management, CI will encourage conservation through detailed stewardship, advocacy, and business plans.

CI and our partners will encourage local people to be good stewards of their land through an incentive arrangement that will support wetland rehabilitation, train farmers to fix broken water pumps, and work with farmers unions and local organizations to ensure that people become more aware of the land’s ability to support biological diversity, long-term agriculture and human life.

Optimism for the Future

One surprising result of the 2008 survey is that 89 percent of communal farmers said they would be willing to have fewer animals if it meant that they would be able to use the land for a longer period of time.

This eagerness to learn and adapt gives hope that with smart planning and integrated efforts, significant positive changes will be made that will benefit both local communities and the unique environment that they call home.

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