Heavy earthmoving equipment and trucks were moved to the Lake St. Lucia beach this week to create an artificial link with the sea (Photo: iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority)
The mouth of South Africa’s largest estuarine lake has been bulldozed with heavy earthmoving equipment – in clear disregard of a High Court ruling and scientific advice from several of the most experienced estuarine experts from the country.
Ecological experts fear the man-made breach at the mouth of the Lake St. Lucia estuary on Wednesday afternoon could be a major setback for a multi-million ecological restoration project funded by the World Bank to reverse decades of human interference in the natural functioning of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park core, a World Heritage site.
Four years ago, the Isimangaliso Wetlands Park Authority and then Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa won a historic High Court victory over local sugar producers who demanded that the lake was drilled to protect some of their fields from back-flooding as a more natural way the water flow was restored to the lake. The tribunal’s victory – later confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal – paved the way for the reconnection of uMfolozi River at Lake St. Lucia, which has been increasingly deprived of water due to nearly 50 years of human interference.
But the park authority, now under new management, appears to have caved in under pressure from local fishermen, sugar producers and tour operators in the village of Saint Lucia who have pushed the government and park authority to find a quick fix by bulldozing your mouth. Proponents argue that an artificial breach would allow seawater to enter the lake from the Indian Ocean, thus increasing the number of saltwater species for sport fishermen, reducing the muddy sediment that has accumulated around the estuary and reducing the risk of sugar farms being destroyed. flooded in the uMfolozi River floodplain.
The authority recently sent mixed messages – denying it had sanctioned a violation while saying it would be guided by expert advice on what to do.
And when the earthmoving equipment arrived on the beach on Monday, attempts were made to allay the concerns of environmentalists by suggesting that the equipment was just there to scrape off some beach sand and “push the system” to. that it opens naturally.
The authority confirmed on Tuesday that “equipment has been moved to the site to begin implementing a short-term solution to help restore functionality to the estuary and re-establish links with the ocean” – but it did not explicitly state that she was planning to bulldoze with her mouth open.
Simultaneously, Amanda Theron de Gaspary, owner of a local lodge and marketing rep for the village of St. Lucia, posted a sound clip on social media stating that: “Okay, they don’t open their mouths to 100 %… Rudi’s words… So they are not digging a trench to the ocean… They are not going to open it and let the estuary empty… You can talk to Oom Rudi.
Yet at lunchtime on Wednesday, the diggers did just that – dug a trench directly into the sea, piercing their mouths – and “Oom Rudi” (resident and taxpayer representative Rudi Redinger) flatly refused to talk when Daily Maverick contacted him to clarify why the mouth was bulldozed open.
“We are not prepared to comment. We don’t play games, ”said Redinger, who recently made a presentation to the park authority in which he suggested that the mouth be open because the solutions the scientists offered were not“ realistic ”. .
Redinger has also been at the forefront of recent campaigns by residents of the village of Saint Lucia to obtain greater autonomy, by “seceding” from the neighboring municipality of Mtubatuba. Some residents of the old fishing center are said to have offered a new flag for the city and also installed a barrier at the entrance to the village to control access a few years ago before it was removed after opposition from neighboring communities.
The Wetlands Authority did not respond to questions via email on Wednesday about suggestions it had acted surreptitiously or dishonestly by giving the impression that it simply wanted to “restore the functionality of the estuary” with the help of bulldozers, when in fact his intention from the start was to open his mouth – contrary to the advice of environmental experts.
Professor Derek Stretch, a seasoned scientist and expert witness who testified in the High Court to strongly oppose man-made violations, said it was not clear who recommended the action – although it was clear that local farmers and several tourist operators in Saint Lucia and bed-breakfast owners had grown impatient and were pushing for the mouth to be pierced.
Stretch is Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), a PhD in Environmental Fluid Mechanics from the University of Cambridge, and former Director of the UKZN Center for Research in Environmental, Coastal and Hydrological Engineering.
He was also part of a group of several estuarine experts who recommended stopping 50 years of artificial manipulation of the mouth.
“I sincerely hope that they will not persist with this [new] strategy to interfere with natural processes, “Stretch said, adding that he had withdrawn from a recent symposium hosted by the iSimangaliso authority because he did not wish to be involved in processes where scientific advice was apparently” destroyed ”.
“Unfortunately, we are now almost back to square one.”
Nicky Forbes, senior estuary scientist, who has been closely involved in a 72 million rand project to restore the lake’s natural ecological functioning, said it appeared the new iSimangaliso management team was concerned about ” get rid of the pressure ”.
By giving in to the pressure for a short-term solution, the authority ignored the advice of scientific experts and the violation meant that the scarce inflows of freshwater over the past four years would now begin to drain from the lake. .
“This is totally unacceptable… when winter comes, the lake will start to dry up again and a lot of dominoes will start to fall. I would like to know who really made that decision … There does not appear to be any data on the current sediment or water levels in the lake either.
Bryan Ashe of the iSimangaliso Action Group sent questions to the park authority about whether an environmental impact assessment was carried out before the violation decision was made.
He also asked who paid for the breach and the name of the company that carried out the operation and whether Barbara Creecy, the new Minister of Environmental Affairs, Forests and Fisheries, was consulted.
The Creecy office, its department and the iSimangaliso authority did not respond to questions from Daily Maverick, although the authority issued a statement on Tuesday in which it said it was necessary to reconnect the sea to the lake and reduce sediment levels in the lake.
It was also necessary to restore “estuarine functionality”, to resolve the return of flooding to agricultural fields and to restore economic activity, including tourist attractions.
At a recent iSimangaliso symposium, it was noted that while restoring connectivity to the St. Lucia / uMfolozi Estuary watershed “has the potential to have positive long-term benefits”, Short-term challenges for stakeholders remained and “continued interventions and monitoring may be needed to maximize positive results”.
“A key resolution of the symposium was to establish an inclusive multidisciplinary working team to advance the resolutions suggested by the symposium participants… prepare the area to attempt to reconnect the sea and lake of St. Lucia, and the uMfolozi rivers and Msunduzi. DM