Riparain zones crucial yet an overlooked ecosystem

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According to a study published in January 2017 in the nature international journal of science titled Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex by Lawrence and company discovered a peatland in  DRC measuring approximately 145,500 square kilometers with a maximum depth of 5.9 metres making Cuvette Centrale depression the most extensive and complex in the tropics. This peatland is approximated to be storing 30 billion tonnes of carbon and radiocarbon dates indicate that the peat began accumulating from about 10,600 years ago, coincident with the onset of more humid conditions in central Africa at the beginning of the Holocene (current geological epoch).

This remarkable unusual discovery highlights the importance of preserving ecosystems including riparian zones.

Riparian zones are corridors located at the interface of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. They act as conduits, filters or barriers controlling flows of water, sediments and nutrients. (Mander and Hayakawa, 2005) and provide wildlife habitat, increased biodiversity, and wildlife corridors, enabling aquatic and riparian organisms to move along river systems and this further avoids isolated or segmented natural communities. Indeed, both humans and animals enjoy the services provided by riparian ecosystems.

While scientists noted that this newly discovered peat bog is safe from agriculture because it is located in a remote part of Congo – an area that is protected and designated as a community reserve, many peat bogs and other riparian zones and ecosystems in the African Continent are under threat and remain unprotected from agriculture and urbanization.

In Uganda, for example, over 50 % of Nakivubo wetland -the biggest wetland in Kampala city has been lost to rudimentary farming and harvesting of papyrus reads and the upper section of the wetland is now occupied by settlements and industries. According to this World Bank report, these activities have reduced the wetland’s ability to filter water and the immediate effect has been algae blooms in the inner Murchison Bay in Lake Victoria.

And in Kenya, the Sio-Siteko wetland system that spans along the Kenya-Uganda border – a wetland that provides many important ecosystem services including serving as a breeding ground for fish, migratory bird flyway and a source of construction materials continues to be overexploited and degraded and is under threat from human activities including agriculture and increasing urbanization. Consequently, noticeable changes in the physical condition of the wetlands have been observed and this wetland can no longer provide many of these ecosystem services.

In Ghana, the Sakumo Ramsar site also known as Sakumo lagoon is a wetland of international importance. It covers an area of 1,340 hectares (3,300 acres) and is situated along the coastal road between Accra and Tema in the Greater Accra Region of Ghana. The wetland is being parcelled and sold to individuals and who in turn construct buildings. This has resulted in pollution of the wetland, blocking of feeder streams and disappearance of fish, which is a staple among the locals.

People’s perception toward riparian ecosystems is that they are wastelands with little or no significance because they are permanently waterlogged and a breeding ground to Anopheles mosquitoes that carry Plasmodium, – malaria causing parasite-, and hence drain them away at the slightest chance to make them arable and habitable. Poor protection of riparian areas has been compounded by an inadequacy of the laws and overlapping of roles by government agencies have made protecting this important resource very difficult.

But, there is more African countries can gain from protecting riparian ecosystems and more so from its ecological services and these include:

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

No continent will be struck severely by effects of climate change like Africa due to its limited adaptive capacity. Ecosystem-based approaches through conserving riparian ecosystems can cushion some effects of climate change like floods by absorbing excess surface run. The Global commitment of keeping global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius can be achieved by not encroaching riparian zones because decomposing vegetation found in the waterlogged areas have been known to store carbon that would otherwise be emitted as Green House Gases (GHG) to cause global Carbon.

Biological diversity and Eco-Tourism

Africa is home to some of the largest tropical Riparian ecosystems like  Okavango Delta that has 530 species of birds, 160 mammals, 155 species of reptiles, 35 species of Amphibians and 1500 plant species Okavango delta.  These ecosystems hold a great potential in Ecotourism by supporting environmental sustainability while also providing economic benefits to the local communities Sustainable future.

Filter and Buffer water

“Half of Africa’s population will be living in urban areas in 2035 compared to one third in 1990”  said Giovanie Biha, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) during the launch of the 2017 Economic Report on Africa by the ECA Sub-Regional Office for Eastern Africa in Kigali (SRO-EA). The increase in urban population has put financial pressure on water treatment services in African cities and towns. A case in point is Kampala’s city whose waste water passes through Nakivubo wetland on its way to Lake Victoria. In a statement issued on March 22, 2017, World Water Day, Ramsar secretary general Martha Rojas-Urrego said, “The Nakivubo Swamp in Kampala, Uganda, for example, filters all the sewage and industrial waste for free. A treatment plant that will do the same was found would cost over $2 million per year.

Africa stands to gain from the many riparian ecosystems dotted across the continent by changing the mindset of the population that view these fringe ecosystems as a wasteland. The recent discoveries in Congo of large peatlands the size of England and billions of tonnes of carbon stored have put into perspective on other tropical riparian areas like the Okavango Delta, the Sudd and the Niger. Also, Africa is undergoing a renaissance economically and Ecotourism is a form of tourism that has the potential of significantly creating employment and reducing poverty lastly Africa’s farmlands and urban areas need riparian zones to filter the wastewater in a cost-effective manner and this will be achieved by protecting the riparian ecosystem jealously.

Written by Sam Dindi

Sam is a holder of diploma in Tourism and Wildlife management and works in the field of climate change, Tourism and Wildlife. He is also the founder of Mazingira Yetu magazine. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

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Vicki Wangui
Vicki Wangui
Vicki Wangui is a believer in all things beautiful. A believer in spreading information in regards to environmental awareness. A believer in sharing all that is good in Kenya's natural world. A believer in speaking truth with no boundaries. Do you have a story, photo, experience or message you need to share? Send your work to vicki@nyikasilika.org or vickiwangui26@gmail.com.

1 Comment

  1. […] easily understood by the general public. There is limited to no understanding of even words such as riparian land as was established last month and even climate change. For many people, even globally, climate […]

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