The wellbeing of present and future generations depends on the availability and sustainability of ecosystem services. However, achieving social and economic development goals often requires ecosystem users and managers to make trade-offs between these services and to intervene in their management, impacting on services gained. In addition, ecosystem changes and natural resource management decisions link to wider environmental governance frameworks. Such tradeoffs, impacts and linkages are evident along the Pongola river floodplain in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. People living on the floodplain have experienced a significant change to the ecosystem services they receive due to the construction of the upstream Jozini Dam. The increase in water provision primarily for the irrigation of commercially grown sugar cane and cotton has come at the expense of various provisioning, regulatory, supporting and cultural services previously available to downstream communities.
The system is located in the extremely poor Umkhanyakude District which has a 53% unemployment rate, poor service provision and high incidence of disease. As a result the downstream communities are exceedingly reliant on the floodplain and associated ecosystem services which in turn are vulnerable to abuse.
The proposed study aimed to assess the ecosystem services that contribute to human welfare on the floodplain and to deepen the understanding of decision-makers, empowering them to consider the impacts of their actions on both ecosystem functioning and human wellbeing.
To achieve this, the study identified and categorised those ecosystem services produced by the system before and after construction of the Dam and identified and evaluated the elements of wellbeing for the Pongola community. Indicators and measures to represent the state of these ecosystems and human wellbeing were then selected.
This included an economic evaluation of the ecosystem services and water/land productivity of the system both before and after construction of the dam. The linkages between the elements of wellbeing supported and affected by ecosystem services and similarly human activities which impact these services was analysed to identify the relationships between environmental governance, the selected services and human wellbeing. Information from the indicators was analysed to determine the current state of these services and human wellbeing and an historic change analysis was conducted to determine trends in these services, possible causes of change and the associated impact on society. Finally, governance drivers which impact ecosystem services important to wellbeing were identified, possible futures determined and suitable response strategies developed.
Stakeholder consultation was a key component of the project and was undertaken in all stages to facilitate the uptake of the knowledge developed. The limited use and understanding of wellbeing-ecosystem service information by management authorities was a major hindrance to the successful management of ecosystem services and the improvement of human wellbeing in the region.
Key stakeholders included the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, who are responsible for managing the dam as well as the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs and the Department of Health who are mandated to address many of the impacts of decreased ecosystem services such as reduced agricultural potential and increased disease thereby influencing poverty. A key component of the project was to establish partnerships between these organizations and build capacity to improve understanding of the impacts on ecosystem services and the complex links to human wellbeing. By addressing natural resource governance, the project contributed to ecosystem conservation and improved human welfare, not only on the Pongola floodplain but in other river systems in South Africa and further afield.