This balance is critical and required by the estuaries as nurseries for many of the marine fish species that local and fisherman rely upon. This represents a huge ocean economy that is under threat from ecosystem degradation. Despite the role of the coast in livelihood of many citizens, these ecosystems are particularly vulnerable.
Deteriorating water quality is driving most of the changes. There have been a significant increase in pollution pressures from wastewater treatment works (WWTW) discharges, amplified by a decreasing ability to treat effluent to required standards. This is further exacerbated by rapid urbanisation, leading to increase storm water discharges. Increased nutrient loading is causing severe eutrophication, resulting in low oxygen levels, and decreasing estuary productivity and important ecosystem services they provide, such as nursery function.
In most extreme cases it causes noxious algal blooms and fish kills. In the long run, it affects recreation value and property values and reduces business opportunities. Poor water quality is also affecting resilience and creating opportunities for invasive species. Some of the South Africa’s high energy coastline estuaries provide rare naturally safe environments for contact recreation, such as swimming.
Discharges into estuaries thus puts contact recreation and related tourism opportunities at risk. It is not only sewage that leads the pollution of the coastline, but also plastics.
According to the World Economic Forum: Future of Nature and Business (July 2020), the global population escalated from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 8 billion people today. The livelihood demands for the population have to be met through amongst others, generation of food, extensive land use, exploitation of oceans and many more activities. In the process of growing the economy, developments have led to an estimated 80% of biodiversity loss, globally. In South Africa this degradation is confirmed through research, where wetlands and estuaries are the worst threatened ecosystems, way above 65%.
In fact, the realisation that no economy can be sustained on a sick planet has caught up with every nation. Of all the suffering that Covid-19 has brought with, one of the key lessons noted is that it brought all nations closer together, with politicians listening more to scientists and unanimous calls for action towards a greener world.
With the increasing demand for coastal space and resources on one hand, and the increased commitment to biodiversity conservation on the other hand, serious multi-user conflicts have emerged. In South Africa, estuarine resource management still has a strong single sector focus (e.g. fisheries, conservation, water and waste, marine aquaculture). These are outlined in several pieces of legislation, most prominent being the National Environmental Management: Waste Act, National Water Act, Agricultural Acts, estuarine management plans, marine protected areas, and many more. The SDG:14 calls specifically for the protection of life under water.
As if that is not enough, the UN declared 2021-2030 a decade of ecosystem restoration. Some countries have already moved far ahead on banning of single use plastics, a route South Africa is likely to follow based on the current review of waste regulations. The Water Research Commission and partners are leading in the generation of sustainable integrated blue economy (Oceans economy) models that mainstream ecological infrastructure (healthy ecosystems) with built infrastructure for sustainable developments.
Tourism as one of the core programmes of the Operation Phakisa, is certainly not immune from the extensive ecosystem degradation as outlined above. Climate change projections, including sea level rise, has worsened the situation, necessitating implementation of resilient and ecosystem-based adaptation measures.
Estuaries are under-protected in South Africa with only 18% of estuarine area well protected.
With the collective will by all stakeholders, serious pollution such as where 840 million liters of wastewater (mainly from dysfunctional WWTW), flow daily into estuaries/oceans, can be prevented. This emphasizes the need for strategic interventions across multiple sectors to restore estuarine health and protect benefits they provide to society and economy.