Land Degradation MD

Monitoring SES components and understanding root causes for land degradation in the Maloti-Drakensberg

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  • Project duration: August 2019 - December 2025
  • Project status:
    Approval by the head for the Scientific Committee

The Maloti-Drakensberg is a transboundary mountain range shared by Lesotho and South Africa which provides ecosystem services (ES) to both local and distant communities. The mountains act as a ‘water tower’ which captures, stores and filters water, providing more than 12 million people with water and fuelling South Africa’s industrial heartland in Gauteng province. Rangeland and arable land provide subsistence livelihoods for many of the rural inhabitants, although soil erosion—due in part to overgrazing—threatens these livelihoods along with the supply of water downstream. But a ‘tragedy of the commons’ perspective – in which the MD’s communal natural resources are over exploited by individuals – is not sufficient to explain ongoing cycles of erosion and its impact on ecosystem service provision. Instead, the activities of multiple actors operating at different structural scales and levels is impacting on ES provision, with associated trade-offs across ES users. Overgrazing causes critical vegetation cover loss, leading to soil erosion, increased run-off/decreased groundwater recharge and stream sediment loading. This also leads to biodiversity loss, as does the damming of rivers for transfer schemes which export water from Lesotho to South Africa. Water transfer infrastructure construction provides temporary local employment but has unquantifiable negative impacts on communities whose valleys were flooded to create dam reservoirs, with allegedly inadequate consultation and subsequent compensation offered. And while commercial diamond mines also contribute to the local economy, working conditions are poor and unions are blocked access to workers. The mines also pollute water courses, soil and the atmosphere. Officially protected from pollution and overgrazing are the conservation areas in South Africa, however these are at times grazed illegally by herders from Lesotho which exacerbates the ongoing tensions between the two nations over the demarcation of their common border. These protected areas are fundamental to the tourism industry in the region which provides employment – much of it seasonal - to rural inhabitants.


The interdisciplinary team of GLOMOS and UFS scientists have the overarching aim of gaining a holistic understanding of the challenges facing the region and how these are interrelated across upland and lowland areas of the water catchment area. However, the MD is currently under researched and there is a paucity of quantitative or qualitative data. This project will help address this information gap through the establishment of baseline socioeconomic and environmental data. To this end, a Long Term Social and Ecological Research (LTSER) site is planned in the northern end of the Maloti-Drakensberg. Researchers from Eurac’s Institute for Alpine Environment will support through sharing their experience and expertise from the LTSER site in Matsch/Mazia, South Tryol. Data from the southern African LTSER site will contribute to a greater understanding of the MD’s social-ecological systems. This understanding is fundamental to inform integrated management strategies that are sustainable environmentally and socially and that will increase the resilience of communities and the mountain ecosystem.


Partner
University of the Free State
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