Workers cut weeds in wetlands at Colbyn Valley Nature Area in Tshwane. Protection of these areas is of great benefit to communities, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)
The recent launch of South Africa’s third National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) represents a significant attempt to domesticate the Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services launched in Paris earlier this year.

It allows us to evaluate our progress and our shortcomings in conservation and ecosystem management on both land and sea. The publication of NBA comes at a time when nature is declining worldwide at unprecedented rates. The Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released the Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services earlier this year. Among its findings was that around 1million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction.

The NBA is a comprehensive scientific reflection of the state of biodiversity in our country, and took five years to complete. It involved nearly 480 South African scientists.

The study is a valuable tool for the environment sector, government, civil society and the scientific community to inform policy, planning and decision-making on the wise use of our country’s biodiversity assets and the management and restoration of our ecological infrastructure.

The five main findings of the study contain good and bad news.

The good news is that there has been significant success at assessing and protecting our biodiversity, maintaining South Africa as one of the top three countries globally, and one of 17 megadiverse nations when it comes to plant and marine species that are found nowhere else on Earth.

The second major finding of the study is the strategic significance of biodiversity-related employment in our country. The report notes that approximately 418000 jobs are related to biodiversity. This compares favourably with the mining sector, which sustained approximately 430000 jobs in 2017. Many of these jobs are in rural areas where there are limited employment alternatives.

It brings home the message that biodiversity needs to support economic transformation, spatial integration, social cohesion and improved service delivery for all its citizens.

In South Africa, our protected area estate is at 9% of our total land and sea mass, indicating that over two-thirds of ecosystem types and 63% of species assessed are represented. A total of 75% of terrestrial ecosystem types have representation in protected areas, with plans for further expansion in the coming years. The report found that our protected areas are generally providing good protection for species. Over 85% of bird and reptile taxa qualify as well-protected, while only 72% of amphibians, 63% of plants, 57% of butterflies and 56% of mammals are well-protected.

Notwithstanding our well-documented conservation efforts, animal and plant species are under threat. One in seven of the 23312 indigenous species that were assessed are considered threatened with extinction. Of the 2911 animals assessed in the study, a total of 12% are also categorised as threatened with extinction.

Mammals face a higher threat level, at 17%, and 36 of more than 20000 plant species are already confirmed extinct. A further 70 plant species are possibly extinct. Overall a total of 14% of plant species are threatened with extinction. The most concerning of the report’s findings relate to our freshwater ecosystems, rivers, wetlands, estuaries and freshwater fish stocks.

The National Biodiversity Assessment found that the major threats to freshwater systems are over-extraction of water, pollution, invasive alien species, habitat loss and climate change.

In a water-stressed country such as ours, these findings are cause for serious concern. They call for urgent action to improve the health of the rivers, wetlands and estuaries that protect our water security.

The restoration and protection of freshwater ecosystems, or what we term eco-infrastructure services, will deliver huge returns on investment with great benefit to the communities that depend on them. Wetlands, for example, protect human settlements from floodwaters and also clean pollutants from fresh water. Estuaries are crucial nurseries for fish important for human consumption, and are focal places for tourism and recreation.

The question we must now address is: how does understanding this dismal message help us in our quest to get a better deal for people and nature?

The importance of ecological infrastructure and healthy catchments for securing South Africa’s scarce water resources are already accepted within government policy.

The NBA report now helps direct attention to the most important ecosystems that underpin water-related benefits for people. The department already has significant programmes to rehabilitate water sources, wetlands and estuaries, including the removal of waste, in particular plastics, and alien species that suck up the water available to us. These programmes will now become more targeted. The National Biodiversity Framework and the National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy are acknowledged in the report as important existing policy instruments for protection of species and ecosystems. With this report we are able to better target future protected area expansion.

It also assists with our national and our international reporting obligations - such as the state of environment reporting and the Convention on Biological Diversity Country Report, and our reporting against Aichi Targets or the Sustainable Development Goals.

Armed with the scientific evidence, we are now able to take further action in a systematic way to protect our most strategic eco-infrastructure and catchment areas and monitor the effectiveness of interventions we are already undertaking. The NBA adds to the significant global scientific evidence that nature is declining worldwide at rates unprecedented in human history.

* Creecy is the minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.