SA Canegrowers: Umfolozi EIA plan welcomed but flood crisis a deep concern

SA Canegrowers: Umfolozi EIA plan welcomed but flood crisis a deep concern

Colleen Dardagan

With thousands of hectares of high-yielding sugarcane under water on the Umfolozi Flats, sugarcane growers are turning to the government via the State of Disaster plan to find relief.

SA Canegrowers has welcomed an announcement by the iSimangaliso Wetland Park authorities that an Environmental Impact Assessment on dredging the lower Msunduzi River is underway.

At a meeting in the lakeside town of St Lucia late in February, CEO of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Sibusiso Bukhosini confirmed the appointment of an Environmental Impact Assessment consultant regarding a proposal to dredge the Msunduzi River in a bid to clear its course of overgrown vegetation.

The vegetation is believed to be preventing the water from flowing unhindered into the lake and as a result preventing the more regular breaching of its mouth into the ocean.

Those in favour of the dredging believe increased volumes of water flowing into the UNESCO World Heritage Site from the Msunduzi and Umfolozi Rivers will keep the mouth of the lake open to the sea thereby decreasing the amount of back flooding on the Umfolozi flood plain.

Theuns Theunissen, SA Canegrowers Regional Manager : Pongola and Umfolozi said more than 2 500ha of some of South Africa’s highest yielding sugarcane was under water on the plain.

“We understand that the appointed consultant will visit the site on April 14 and will meet with all the concerned parties,” Theunissen said.

And while the stakeholders present welcomed the announcement, they said the lengthy processes linked to the assessment were problematic.

They reiterated that the increased flooding from 1 800ha in January to more than 2 500ha in the last couple of weeks following heavy rains in the region required more immediate action.

Theunissen said those at the meeting were now looking to utilise the declared State of Disaster to intervene more urgently and to get “immediate permission to continue with the work to remove the ‘plug’ in the Msunduzi river”.

Proposed improvement to the existing integrated management plan for the UNESCO World Heritage site were also mooted by the meeting which included the incorporation of the maintenance of the two rivers into the plan to circumvent the requirement for an impact assessment each time maintenance was deemed necessary.

SA Canegrowers CEO, Dr Thomas Funke called for urgency saying while he welcomed the announcement of the Environmental Impact Assessment sugarcane growers and related parties such as neighbouring rural communities needed urgent intervention.

“Sugarcane farmers are just one of the severely affected parties of years of indecisive management of the system. More than 2 500ha of high-yielding sugar cane fields are now under water. The Environmental Impact Assessment is definitely a move in the right direction but what we also need is the approval and finalisation of a sustainable integrated management plan for this important wetland and agriculture system,” Funke said.

Largest estuarine system

Lake St Lucia in northern KwaZulu-Natal is the largest estuarine system in southern Africa, at about 36 000ha in extant. The system provides about 60% of the national and 80% of the provincial estuarine areas. Its importance was recognised in February 1986 when it was a declared as a wetland site of international importance under The Convention on Wetlands, or under the Ramsar Convention – an intergovernmental environmental treaty- which became enforceable on December 21, 1975.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park was listed as a World Heritage Site in December 1999.

Now SA Canegrowers is a key role player in a task team established by South Africa’s Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy following a symposium on October 13, 2020, to establish an integrated management plan for the estuarine system.

The symposium was held at the lakeside town of St Lucia.

Theunissen said the plan was aimed at addressing the ecological and scientific challenges in parallel to socio-economic and agricultural sustainability and stability of the system.

“Once we have solutions to address the social, economic and ecological challenges we need to have very adaptive and pro-active early warning systems in place to make sure we continuously have the best advice at all times on how to respond to this highly sensitive environment. However, it is key that all stakeholders which include the scientists, growers and rural communities are kept abreast of developments,” Theunissen said.

Following the recommendations of a report published in 2015 by a group of estuarine researchers funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) the authorities re-connected the Umfolozi River back to Lake St Lucia. The river was first diverted in 1952 which resulted in a significant and negative impact on the estuarine system resulting in the closure of the estuary mouth on a frequent basis.

However, following one of the worst droughts on record in 2015 and 2016 the estuarine mouth closed and remained closed despite above average rainfall from the year 2017. This meant vast tracts of land under sugarcane were “back-flooded” as the water had no way out to the sea.

Little relief

When the estuarine mouth was artificially breached by authorities early in 2021 it had little impact on the water levels as both the Umfolozi and Msunduzi rivers were choked with alien vegetation and the lake is over-burdened with silt. The mouth closed again in June of that year. With above-average rains in 2021 followed by exponential flooding due to above-normal rainfall conditions in April 2022 at least 1 800ha of land under sugarcane was flooded. The mouth at the St Lucia Estuary finally breached naturally on April 14, 2022. But it would seem, the damage to the eco-system was already done and the breaching did little to relieve the back-flooding.

“The lower Msunduzi river remains choked with sediment and vegetation meaning farmers in the region are finding more of their fields than ever under water,” Theunissen said.

Since the initial symposium in October 2020, SA Canegrowers has been at the forefront in serving on the various representative bodies, on presenting and providing socio-economic and other related information, providing support to the affected farmers and liaising with government officials and opposition party officials on the issue.

Experts to advise the minister

In the presentation of her report on April 28 last year at the lakeside town of St Lucia, Minister Creecy asked the panel of appointed experts to advise her department on the following:

  1. The significance and impact of the artificial opening of the estuary mouth and how this relates to the implementation of the GEF 5 project interventions and the St Lucia estuary management plan
  2. The exceptional circumstance, as defined in the estuary management plant, that lead to the decision to breach the mouth, including those of an environmental, social and economic nature
  3. The impact of the mouth opening on the functioning of the estuary system and the wetland system, as well as the associated environmental, social and economic implications
  4. The development of guidelines for the immediate and ongoing management of the system

Based on the data collected, analysis carried out and panel discussions the Minister made a few key recommendations which included:

  1. The maintenance breaching may continue under exceptional circumstances – however, these circumstances are yet to be clearly defined
  2. The maintenance of the Umfolozi and Msunduzi rivers will be allowed. The cleaning of the Msunduzi river falls outside the iSimangaliso authority and a commitment from the Department of Water and Sanitation would be required to dredge the river
  3. The careful removal of all alien vegetation on the sand dunes to assist natural breaching
  4. An in-house monitoring plan should be development as currently the iSimangaliso monitoring stands are non-existent and the management authority is reliant on Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife which has limited resources
  5. Improved communication of policy decisions and their impact, to source the views of those who are affected, and to assess the relevance of policy decision their social context

Lake St Lucia Estuarine System – a World Heritage site timeline

An historical timeline of agriculture development and human settlements on the Umfolozi River floodplain – one of the largest natural floodplains in the world and a major feeder river of Lake St Lucia – and discussions and plans mooted since the estuary mouth was allowed to close naturally in 2002.

From 1911      commercial sugarcane farmers start to occupy and drain part of the lower Umfolozi swamplands

1937                Nearly 30% of the flood plain is drained

1940                An extended drought sees water flowing into the lake choked with muddy sediment and farmland being flooded due to the frequent closures of the mouths of the Lake St Lucia and the Umfolozi and Msunduzi rivers

1952                A decision is taken to artificially separate the mouth of the Umfolozi from the lake estuary and divert it to flow directly into the sea. The lake lost nearly 60% of its former water inflow and the estuary mouth began to close up from the sea more frequently

1960                Nearly half of the floodplain is drained for agriculture

2002                The St Lucia mouth was allowed to close naturally

2011/12           Management actions include the diversion of water via a back channel when the Umfolozi mouth was closed allowing for silt-free fresh water to flow into the lake and reducing the instance of flooding in low-lying sugarcane fields, and, joining the Umfolozi and Lake St Lucia estuary mouths to form a combine mouth which allowed the system to function as naturally as possible.

2015                A group of estuarine researchers produced a report funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) recommends reconnecting the Umfolozi River to the lake.

October 2020 iSimangaliso Symposium is held to critically review management strategies and to appoint a task team to investigate solutions. SA Canegrowers and the Umfolozi Cane Growers’ Association are present at the event

February 2021 The authorities breach the lake mouth after a six-year natural closure

March 2021      Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, Barbara Creecy appoints a panel of experts to advise whether the breach was carried out legally, its impact and to develop guidelines for future management of the lake system

April 2021       The findings are made public

November 2021          Minister Barbara Creecy visits the region

December 2021           Parliamentary Portfolio Committee members visit the region

February 2022             SA Canegrowers present their case to the Minister and the Portfolio Committee

February 2022             The Parliamentary Committee grants Minister Barbara Creecy until the end of March 2022 to complete her Panel of Experts report.

April 2022                   Minister Barbara Creecy requests a delay of her presentation of the report. The request was opposed.

April 28, 2022             Minister Barbara Creecy presents the report at St Lucia. At that meeting the Minister presented a draft implementation plan with time bound commitments, however, the plan requires further stakeholder engagement before it can be finalised


Some of the information provided in this timeline was published in an article by environment journalist, Tony Carnie in the Daily Maverick on May 10, 2022

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