By Absalom Shigwedha and Shirley Bethune
Thousands of long-legged birds descend on the shallow waters of the lagoon while tourists take photographs in the cool morning air. Welcome to the Walvis Bay Lagoon, one of the most important wetlands in Southern Africa and one of Namibia’s officially designated wetlands of international importance.
Negotiated in the Iranian town of Ramsar in 1971, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially waterfowl habitat, became known as the Ramsar Convention, and the wetlands it strives to protect, as Ramsar sites. To date 152 countries are party to the Convention, with 1 604 Ramsar sites covering some 134.7 million hectares worldwide. In December 1995, Namibia joined the Convention and designated the Walvis Bay wetlands, Sandwich Harbour, the Orange River mouth and the Etosha Pan as its first Ramsar sites.
Publications and promotional material
In order to promote an awareness of Namibia’s internationally important wetlands, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) has published a booklet, Preliminary Inventory of Namibia’s Wetlands, and a series of attractive brochures of each Ramsar site, compiled by Holger and Claire Kolberg. In Walvis Bay, the Coastal Environmental Trust of Namibia, CETN, erected several colourful information boards alongside the lagoon, explaining what Ramsar sites are and depicting many of the birds that visitors are likely to see there.
Danica Shaw of the Namibia Nature Foundation and the Wetlands Working Group of Namibia, recently launched a poster and booklet for schools on Wetlands of Namibia. CETN has organised competitive quizzes between schools at the coast for several years. Since 2003, the Department of Water Affairs, in partnership with NamWater, NGOs, municipalities and the media, has combined this with a national competition for World Water Day. Four regions participated at the first two events held at Hardap Dam and Rundu Beach and in 2005, finalists from 10 regions gathered at the Walvis Bay Lagoon. This will hopefully grow into an even larger and more competitive national event.
The information boards at the lagoon show how well the Walvis Bay wetlands comply with the specific criteria for Ramsar sites. With bird numbers ranging from 80 000–250 000, they easily ‘support a minimum of 20 000 waterfowl at all times’. By supporting up to 75 000 Greater and Lesser Flamingos, 5 000 Black-necked Grebes, 2 000 Avocets, 35 000 Curlew Sandpipers, 8 000 Chestnut-banded Plovers and at least 50 other waterfowl species, it certainly supports ‘substantial numbers of individuals from particular groups of waterfowl’. Finally, it complies with the criteria to ‘regularly support 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterfowl’ for 18 species.
According to these posters, the Walvis Bay wetlands include the lagoon, the beach and inter-tidal areas south of Pelican Point, the occasionally flooded areas of the Kuiseb River delta and the artificially flooded evaporation pans of the Walvis Bay Salt Refiners, an area of some 12 600 hectares. Despite its international status and pre-1994 recognition as a nature reserve, this area has yet to be officially proclaimed as such in Namibia. It is expected that the Pelican Point peninsula will shortly be added to the present Ramsar site.
The Walvis Bay site
Regular bird counts of the Walvis Bay Ramsar site were started in 1983 by the Walvis Bay Round Table and co-ordinated by Dr Chris Brown and Dr Tony Williams. In 1994 the biannual count was taken over by the CETN, which still organises it. There are eight volunteer bird experts and up to 30 volunteer helpers. They also organise counts at the sewage ponds and assist with the coastal bird counts between Walvis and Swakopmund. This coastal area, with an average of 450 birds per kilometre, has the highest linear count of any coast in Southern Africa. This is why it is recognised both nationally and internationally as an Important Bird Area, one of 19 in Namibia.
According to the book Important Bird Areas of Africa and Associated Islands, the Walvis Bay Ramsar site is the most important coastal wetland in Southern Africa, while Wetlands International considers it one of the top three coastal wetlands for palaearctic waders in Africa. It supports significant numbers of globally near-threatened species such as the Lesser Flamingo, African Black Oystercatcher, Chestnut-banded Plover, Crowned Cormorant and Damara Tern. These birds share the Walvis Bay Lagoon with sailors, wind-surfers, kayakers and even joggers on the promenade. It is vital that the Walvis Bay Lagoon be given protection, as increasing disturbance and future housing developments threaten these birds. Conservation and development must co-exist without jeopardising the rich biodiversity of this internationally important wetland.
South of Walvis Bay
South of Walvis Bay is another unique wetland of international importance. Sandwich Harbour covers an area of 16 500 hectares and is protected within the Namib-Naukluft Park. Its diminishing northern wetland is sustained by freshwater seeping from an aquifer beneath the dunes supporting freshwater vegetation and a high diversity of birds. The southern mudflats support some of the highest concentrations of wetland birds anywhere in the world, up to 10 000 birds per square kilometre. Counts have shown that this area can support over 145 000 birds in the summer and 50 000 in winter.
Namibia shares its third coastal wetland, the Orange River Mouth, with South Africa. This important but degraded Ramsar site regularly supports more than 1 per cent of the world’s Damara Tern and Hartlaub’s Gull populations, as well as fourteen Red Data species. More than half the annual flow is now diverted, dammed or used before it reaches the wetlands at the mouth.
In November 2002, the four countries that share the perennial Orange River, (Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho), established the Orange-Senqu River Commission, ORASECOM, committed to working together to develop, use and conserve the Orange River for the benefit of all. One of the tasks of ORASECOM should be to ensure the timing and duration of environmental water flows to the wetlands supported by the river. Recognising the importance of this site, Namibia plans to host next years’ World Wetland Day celebrations in Oranjemund.
Namibia’s only designated inland Ramsar site is Etosha Pan. This usually dry wetland covers some 600 000 hectares and is the largest pan in Namibia. Seasonal rains and high floods – referred to locally as efundja – from the Cuvelai drainage system to the north, fill the pan occasionally, creating the only known nesting site for flamingos in Namibia. In good years, Etosha can support up to a million birds.
Potential Ramsar sites
Wetlands need protection, as they provide critical habitats for countless birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates and plants. There is a need to increase the network of protected wetland areas. The Kunene River mouth, Cape Cross lagoons, Swakopmund saltworks, lakes Otjikoto and Guinas, the Nyae-Nyae pans system, the Cuvelai drainage area north of Etosha, the lower Okavango River in Namibia, the eastern floodplains of the Zambezi River including the Linyanti swamp and Lake Liambezi, as well as some of Namibia’s offshore islands – Mercury, Ichaboe and Possession – are all important wetlands that potentially qualify as future Ramsar sites.
The Integrated River Basin Management project on the Okavango River Basin is presently assessing the Okavango River between Mukwe and the border with Botswana as a potential Ramsar site. This would link to the largest Ramsar site in the world, the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The Ramsar Commission recently added sinkhole lakes and underground caves as a new category of wetlands in need of conservation. The designation of Namibia’s network of Karst lakes and caves as a Ramsar site would give much-needed protection and recognition to the unique fish species of Otjikoto Lake and Aigamas cave, and the endemic invertebrate fauna of Dragon’s Breath cave.
Threats to wetland sites
As the Wetland booklet indicates, wetlands in Namibia are under pressure. Threats include over-use of plant and animal resources due to population growth and poverty, over-withdrawal of river and groundwater for irrigation and urban use, and pollution by pesticides, agricultural fertilisers and, increasingly, industrial effluents. However, these pressures can be reduced by conserving more of our wetland ecosystems as Ramsar sites, promoting integrated water-resource management, preventing water pollution in wetlands and their catchments, increasing national awareness and promoting environmental education.
This will require co-operation across sectors, across borders and between Government, NGOs and communities. Taking up this challenge to involve all stakeholders and to design a policy particular to national needs, the MET commissioned the Wetlands Working Group to draft a National Wetland Policy aligned to the National Water Policy of 2000. The draft was widely circulated to relevant ministries and NGOs and the comments received were incorporated in the final draft now awaiting submission to Cabinet.
This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.