Remarks by minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment, barbara creecy, at the launch report of the panel of experts which reviewed the breaching of the mouth of the st lucia estuary


28 APRIL 2022

Chairperson of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Board, Professor Thandi Nzama. Members of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Board. Chief Executive Officer of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Mr Sibusiso Bukhosini. Acting Chief Executive Officer of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Mr Dlulane. Deputy Director-General of Biodiversity and Conservation, Ms Flora Mokgohloa. Members of the Panel present here with us. Members of the media. Ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for your attendance today, particularly so soon after parts of the KwaZulu-Natal south coast was destroyed by severe flooding. Allow me to take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences to the government and people of Kwa Zulu Natal for the terrible loss of life and wish those injured and in hospital a speedy recovery.

The floods also proved to be that extreme weather event which allowed the St Lucia Lake estuary to open naturally on 14 April 2022. This event is critically important not only for the functioning of this natural asset, but also for the many other ecosystem services it provides to the diverse stakeholders that depend on it.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site is the first South African site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1999 in recognition of its superlative natural beauty and unique global values, including its status as the largest estuary system in Africa.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today I release the Review of the Scientific Basis for Breaching of the Mouth of Lake St Lucia Estuary, Isimangaliso Wetland Park in January 2021. As you all know, the mouth to the St Lucia Lake estuary was artificially breached by the iSimangaliso Park Authority, following a multi-stakeholder Symposium in October 2020 to discuss the breaching of the St Lucia Lake which had been closed to the marine environment since 2014.

At the time, the Wetland Park Authority explained that the purpose of the breach was to restore the nursery function of the system; and to flush out the accumulated silt load originating from the uMfolozi and its catchments on the advice of a scientific and technical task team.

But the breach was met with opposition and saw an open letter being addressed to me by a group of scientists requesting an independent investigation into the breach and its effects as this action directly contravened the recommendations of the GEF report.

I requested the Department to appoint an independent panel to conduct this investigation. I received this report on 28 March 2022 and I am releasing it to you today. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the panel for completing the review under trying circumstances created by the Covid 19 pandemic. Despite these obstacles, the panel conducted a review of legislation, management plans, advisory reports and relevant literature. The Panel also conducted site visits and held meetings with scientific experts, management authorities, amakhosi, farmers, fishers, tour operators, ratepayers, municipal staff and relevant government departments.

At the time I appointed the panel I asked it to advise on the significance and impact of the artificial opening of the estuary mouth and how this relates to the implementation of the GEF 5 project interventions and the St Lucia estuary management plan; secondly to advise on the exceptional circumstances, as defined in the estuary management plan, that lead to the decision to breach the mouth, including those of an environmental, social, and economic nature thirdly to advise on the impact of the mouth opening on the functioning of the estuary system and the wetland system as a whole, as well as the associated environmental, social and economic implications and to develop guidelines for the immediate and ongoing management of the system.

I will now deal with the key findings of the review according to the Terms of Reference I mentioned earlier.

Firstly, the review found that while the breach was contrary to the GEF recommendations that no artificial breaching should occur, The Estuarine Management Plan did permit limited breaching for ecological reasons. Accordingly, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority performed the breaching within the mandate as approved through their Maintenance Management Plan, authorised by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, and in line with the prescriptions of related legislation.

The panel found there were many ecological reasons that would justify the breach including the prolonged closure of the system from the sea; the concern over accumulated sediment in the system; the presence of alien invasive species; a decrease in biodiversity within the system; and a decrease in the nursery function of the estuary.

Importantly, the review is critical that the Estuarine Management Plan makes no mention of socio-economic factors in its definition of exceptional circumstances, despite several social and economic concerns associated with a prolonged closed mouth state. I will say more on the absence of these important considerations later in my address.

The Review adds that non-consideration of these factors contributes to community–conservation conflict in relation to the management of the mouth as most stakeholder groups seem to require the St Lucia system to function in one specific state. However, it is important to note that St Lucia as a dynamic system cannot and should not be confined to one ideal state.

Thirdly, on the impact of the mouth opening on the functioning of the estuary and wetland system and whether the objectives of the breach were met, the Review found that the opening seemed to have a positive effect on the restoration of the nursery function of the system and that a number of marine fish for tourism and recreational fishing had been reintroduced. Other positive results included the return of megafauna to the mouth area and the shift from fresh to brackish water in the Lake.

However, the report noted that there was no observed or measured change in the removal of sediment, of common reeds and alien invasive species, no change in the loss of mangroves or in relief to small and large-scale farmers from back-flooding.

I now come to the recommendations by the Panel of Experts:

In accordance with the MMP, maintenance breaching could continue in exceptional circumstances. However, the exceptional circumstances -- ecological or social – for future maintenance breaching must be clearly defined before any further action. While it is clearly understood that the GEF report advises against breaching, it is practical and necessary to consider the effects of allowing the mouth to remain closed.

Accordingly, the second key recommendation of the Panel is that iSimangaliso develop and intensify an in-house monitoring plan and build capacity to collect monitoring data. This includes both biodiversity monitoring and socio-economic data on effects of the system function. The Panel notes that future breaching should not take place without adequate ecological monitoring before and after the event, to ensure the most efficient breach in terms of the intended objectives as well as potential socio-economic reasons. Continued intensive monitoring would also allow for a more adaptive management strategy which is more suitable for the dynamic St Lucia system.

To assist with relief to farmers in the uMfolozi-Msunduzi floodplain as a result of back-flooding, the report recommends clearing the Msunduzi and beach channel of vegetation and sediment to allow water to flow freely from the floodplain to the mouth. Also recommended is dune maintenance to limit encroachment of vegetation.

The Panel also recommends urgent improvement in communication between the management of Isimangaliso and stakeholders including communities, with the aim of allowing stakeholders to better understand management decisions. This includes the translation of technical documents into an easily understandable format.

The Panel states that moving forward, it is clear that the St Lucia Lake, protected and managed by iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority, can no longer be managed as an isolated system. Activities in the floodplain and catchment areas of the feeder rivers contribute to the health of the St Lucia system.

As such, the Panel recommends the development of a comprehensive Reserve Determination of Ecological Water Requirements be developed.

Given the multi-functionality of the system, there is need to review the existing management plan in order to increasingly recognise the estuary dependent economic activities and the inter-relationship between the wetland, forests, wildlife, marine ecosystem, tourism, and livelihoods dependent on fishing and other forms of bio prospecting. This will require inter-disciplinary contributions from varied fields and must include consideration of how emerging small and micro enterprises can be supported and developed alongside the environmental reality of the system.

It is important at this point ladies and gentlemen, to pause and consider the significance of the absence of socio-economic factors in both the Estuarine Management Plan in a wider policy context.

South Africa, as you know, is a signatory to the convention on Biodiversity. The post 2020 Biodiversity Framework, which will be considered in Kunming, China in September this year has three inter-related aspects:

Conservation,

Sustainable use, and

Equitable Community Beneficiation

Our Cabinet has endorsed these three principles because they are in line with our own domestic policies and legislation. This means that going forward, it will be necessary to ensure that all three aspects are included in the policy documents that guide the Estuarine Management Plan.

As you can see the Panel’s report includes both immediate and future work. Accordingly, we have spent the past month studying the report and we can confirm today that the Department and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority have committed to ensuring that the recommendations made by the panel will be implemented.

This will be done in collaboration with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and sister government departments, including the Departments of Agriculture, Land and Rural Development, Water and Sanitation, as well as the District and local municipalities.

I have also requested that some of the members of the Panel have their terms extended by a period of six months to monitor and advise on the implementation of the recommendations.

In conclusion, let me say once more that the Department and I are committed to offering solutions that will safeguard the heritage in iSimangaliso , while also supporting the livelihoods of communities in and around the Park.

This report has to be the beginning of a new chapter of collaboration and working together in the sustainable management of the St Lucia estuary.

I thank you.

The report is available on the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment website:

https://www.dffe.gov.za/sites/default/files/docs/dffeindependentpanel_stluciareport.pdf

Media enquiries, contact:

Albi Modise

083 490 2871