First published in Daily Maverick on 17 July 2023.
The Verlorenvlei Estuary is one of South Africa’s treasures. But this critical ecosystem faces an onslaught that threatens its unique biodiversity, the most recent a tungsten mining application in the Verlorenvlei catchment.
Nestled between the towns of Redelinghuys to the east and Elands Bay to the west lies the Verlorenvlei Estuary. Its serene beauty not only attracts visitors but also underscores the estuary’s ecological significance as a sanctuary for diverse flora and fauna.
This remarkable ecosystem hosts significant biodiversity. It was proclaimed as a Ramsar site on 28 June 1991 under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, one of only 29 Ramsar sites in South Africa.
It is also designated by BirdLife South Africa as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, supporting abundant and rich birdlife, particularly waterbirds, a variety of endangered mammal species, and several indigenous fish.
The Verlorenvlei Estuary boasts rich biodiversity and offers a variety of tourism, recreational, health, educational, and other social benefits that directly uplift local livelihoods. It provides essential nursery areas for the sustenance and productivity of estuarine-dependent fish populations, thereby playing a vital role in bolstering local and broader marine-based economies.
It actively contributes to mitigating the effects of climate change by effectively sequestering and storing carbon from the atmosphere.
Vulnerability of Verlorenvlei
The trouble is that Verlorenvlei is facing significant and increasing pressures from substantial flow reduction (including through the construction of illegal dams and excessive abstraction of water from the Verlorenvlei catchment), extensive agricultural transformation of the estuarine functional zone, and increased pollution. The system is also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, exacerbating its persistence in an already water-stressed area.
The result? Verlorenvlei is literally drying up. These impacts are reducing Verlorenvlei’s ability to provide key services such as nutrient cycling and nursery habitat. The mouth of the estuary has not been breached in years and its recreational and tourism value are also being compromised. The desiccation is rapidly eroding the biodiversity of this unique site.
For several years Verlorenvlei held no fish, given that there was no connection to the sea, no connection to the wider catchment, and rapidly deteriorating water quality. Water bird species diversity also declined significantly from 39 species to just 22 species in the last four years.
This is a crisis, inflicting its toll upon a lonely ecosystem tucked away on South Africa’s West Coast, hidden from sight, and regrettably overlooked in terms of its significance.
A study to determine the ecological reserve of the Verlorenvlei catchment (the amount of water needed to maintain ecological integrity) is currently underway, but there is some uncertainty regarding the finalisation of this process, and whether its recommendations will be sufficient to save the vlei.
A new threat
As if the above threats were not enough, Verlorenvlei is facing a new threat. This time, a mining application that will significantly impact the catchment on which the Vlei depends.
Bongani Minerals (Pty) Ltd, with assistance from Greenmined Environmental (Pty) Ltd, has applied to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy for the right to mine heavy minerals such as tungsten and molybdenum on properties located in the Moutonshoek Protected Environment.
Moutonshoek protects the Krom Antonies River catchment, the main tributary of the Verlorenvlei system. This is in fact a renewed threat, as Bongani has previously applied a few times — unsuccessfully — to mine the same area. The Draft Scoping Report in terms of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations was open for public comment until 3 July 2023.
In its comments, the Biodiversity Law Centre noted that this application is extremely concerning for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the mine is proposed within a protected environment, proclaimed to conserve an important representative sample of threatened ecosystem types. Mining in a protected environment is prohibited.
However, in terms of the recently amended section 48 of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, it may be permitted with the minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment’s consent upon consideration of certain factors (including the ecological integrity of the protected environment).
Mining in a protected environment undermines international commitments made by South Africa in agreeing to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.
Specifically, South Africa has committed to increasing its land area under effective conservation through expanded protected areas and Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures to 30% by 2030. Efforts should therefore be made to conserve and expand South Africa’s protected area estate, not erode it.
In this instance, mining is also entirely inconsistent with the objectives of the Moutonshoek Protected Environment Management Plan, including the conservation of biodiversity.
Secondly, mining operations in the Moutonshoek pose a significant threat to Verlorenvlei, as explicitly acknowledged in the Draft Scoping Report. Mining requires water, and a lot of it, and this mine will be particularly reliant on groundwater resources, so says the Draft Scoping Report. The depletion of groundwater resources, upon which Verlorenvlei relies, looms as a disconcerting risk of the proposed mining activities.
Additionally, the presence of a tailings dam connected to the mine raises grave concerns about potential groundwater contamination, endangering the delicate balance of the Verlorenvlei system and its valuable biodiversity.
Moreover, the threat of sedimentation or pollution of the Krom Antonies River, the primary tributary of Verlorenvlei, further accentuates the vulnerability of this ecosystem. Not to mention the impacts on the community, who will effectively be evicted from their land to make way for the mine, and the laughable suggestion that socioeconomic and biodiversity impacts might be acceptably mitigated.
Protecting vulnerable ecosystems
Our environmental legislation emphasises the importance and vulnerability of ecosystems such as wetlands, which require specific attention in management and planning procedures.
Furthermore, the recently published White Paper on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of South Africa’s Biodiversity reveals the concerning reality that estuaries and wetlands, despite being the most threatened ecosystem types, receive the least protection. Less than 2% of their total area is categorised as “well protected”. South African law and policy therefore clearly dictates that wetlands and estuaries should be treated with particular care.
Yet despite this apparent legal protection, Verlorenvlei is suffering death by the proverbial thousand cuts. Unlawful water abstraction, illegal dams, rampant agricultural expansion and now mining. How much more must this fragile ecosystem endure?
As it is, Verlorenvlei is fast being degraded beyond the point at which it may recover. Yet its significance cannot be overstated. Its peaceful beauty, rich biodiversity, and vital ecological functions make it a precious gem that demands our protection.
Preserving Verlorenvlei is not only crucial for the well-being of local communities and the environment, but also for the collective responsibility we hold in safeguarding the wonders of Nature so that future generations too may benefit.