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Water is life. Without it, the many forms of life on Earth, including humans, would not exist. With World Water Day on 22 March, Wild looks at how our parks and reserves lead the way in protecting our precious water resources. By Peter Chadwick

Why are our parks important?

  • Protected areas, particularly the catchments managed by CapeNature and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, are critical water factories that supply much of our country with its drinking water and requirements for agriculture and industry.
  • Only 18% of high water-yield areas in South Africa enjoy any form of formal protection. Most of this occurs in the higher reaches, leaving the lowland reaches of rivers largely unprotected.
  • Protected areas also safeguard numerous important estuaries where 60-90% of commercially important fish species spend some period of their life cycles. Streams free of invasive alien fish are often found within protected areas.

Mountain catchments

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The Pholela River, which has its source high in the southern Drakensberg, cuts a winding path through the ancient landscape and deep gorges of the mountains. Headwater catchments, which receive high levels of rainfall, are the source of major rivers. Many of these areas are threatened by mining activities.

Did you know? 12% of South Africa’s land area generates 50% of the river flow.

Orange River

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Water from the Orange River is channelled through a narrow passageway and cascades 60 metres down in Augrabies Falls National Park. The gorge at Augrabies Falls is 240 metres deep and 18 kilometres long. During floods in 2006, 6,900 cubic metres of water went over the falls every second, three times the average high season flow rate of Niagara Falls. At 2,200 kilometres in length, the Orange River is the fifth longest river in Africa, with a drainage area of more than 1,000,000 square kilometres.

Did you know? There are 29 dams along the Orange River.

Indigenous forests

Heavy rain falling over a coastal forest

Heavy rain pelts down on massive trees in dense coastal forests in the Garden Route National Park. As urban and agricultural demands for water continue to rise, the role of natural forests in the ecosystem are becoming even more valuable and have to be managed as much for a sustainable supply of clean water as any other goal. Well-managed natural forests almost always provide higher quality water with less sediment and fewer pollutants than water coming from other catchments.

Water is the driving force in nature.
– Leonardo da Vinci

Climate change

Drought - sun dried pan with heavily cracked mud, Mkhuze Game Reserve, kwaZulu Natal, South Africa

As climate change impacts increasingly on our planet, droughts and flooding will become more frequent. Climate change also highlights the importance of protecting water resources from degradation and the spread of invasive alien plants. Mountain catchments within protected areas are critical in this regard as they are the primary source of our water supply.

Drakensberg escarpment

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Many mountain streams and rivers, including the sources of the Orange and Tugela rivers, are generated by high rainfall along the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg escarpment. The Drakensberg also contains the world’s second-highest waterfall, Thukela Falls, with a total drop of 947 metres over a series of five falls. The tranquillity of the famous towering Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park belies the fact that rivers rising from the Drakensberg provide water for the industries of Mpumalanga and Gauteng.

Did you know? Water demand in South Africa is expected to increase with 32% to 2030.

Swamps and wetlands

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Water floods around the roots of giant sycamore fig trees in Ndumo Game Reserve. The roots of these massive trees, which border tropical wetlands, stabilise the soil, preventing extensive damage from flooding. Wetlands support high concentrations of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrate species. They are also important for growing crops.

Did you know? 84% of aquatic ecosystems in South Africa are vulnerable or endangered.

De Hoop

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A great white pelican comes in to land on De Hoop Vlei, an internationally recognised Ramsar wetland that lies within De Hoop Nature Reserve in the southern Cape. De Hoop Vlei is 18 kilometres long and up to half a kilometre wide, with its catchment falling mainly on neighbouring agricultural land.

Did you know? Wetlands are the most threatened of all South Africa’s ecosystems.

This article first appeared in Wild Spring 2013.

Wild water-saving tips

It’s up to you. Reduce your direct water footprint and educate yourself on how to become more water wise. Learn to value every precious drop and help keep it pure.

Use water sparingly when visiting parks and reserves:

  • Keep showers short and turn off the tap while lathering, shampooing or shaving.
  • Re-use the same towel for the duration of your stay. Many lodgings ask guests to rehang towels so that they are not washed unnecessarily.
  • Keep your eyes open for signs of water wastage and report any leaks to reception.
  • Pack a stainless steel or glass water bottle and refill it rather than buy bottled water. According to the Water Footprint Network, it may take up to three litres of water to produce a half-litre bottle.