What are ecosystem services?
Within our landscapes there are innumerable interactions between species, their environment, and one another, going on at any one time. Some of these interactions are especially useful to people, supporting life and livelihoods in a variety of ways. These include the provision of oxygen to breathe and clean water to drink, fertile soils for our crops, the pollination of fruit and vegetables that we eat and even the provision of aesthetic beauty. The benefits we get from our ecosystems we collectively call ecosystem services. How we use and manage our landscapes influences the quality and the quantity of the ecosystem services that they in turn provide to us.
Focus on the Succulent Karoo
The focus of this study was on assessing the benefits of ecosystem services provided by the Succulent Karoo biome to the inhabitants of the region and elsewhere. The Succulent Karoo, situated in western South Africa, is a semi-arid area that has been globally recognised as extremely conservation worthy given the exceptional diversity of plants, reptiles, insects, birds and mammals – which make it the most diverse arid area in the world. In addition to this, the Succulent Karoo, like other semi-arid parts of the world, is home to some of the most vulnerable people and places in the country. Limited water and high levels of poverty make the Succulent Karoo more vulnerable to changes in ecosystem services than most other parts of the South Africa. How we choose to use this landscape affects not only its globally important biodiversity, but also the ecosystem services it provides, with direct consequences for its human inhabitants. Altering our landscapes, by mining them, transforming them for crop production or degrading them through sustained heavy grazing, runs the risk of reducing the quality and the quantity of these services and affecting our own well-
This study investigated the ecosystem services that landscapes and their species within the Succulent Karoo provide to the people living in the region, South Africa and internationally. After identifying the relevant ecosystem services and their beneficiaries, we focussed our analysis on five key services: water, grazing, tourism, natural products, restoration and carbon sequestration.
Water is a fundamental ecosystem service as it sustains all life and all economic activity. Within the Succulent Karoo both surface and ground water are generally very limited and highly variable in space and time. Groundwater is frequently of naturally poor quality, particularly in the driest regions, while surface water quality has been affected by anthropogenic increases in salinity. A cost recovery approach to valuing this service indicated that on a per capita basis water in the Succulent Karoo has a value of R3 667 per capita per year. However as all economic activity can be attributed to water supply, the full value of water is arguably closer to the annual GVA of the region, which stands at R25 billion, or R26 265 per capita. The region experiences major challenges around inequitable access to water and the associated human health implications. This is further compounded by human
activities, primarily in the form of land use change, which alter water quality and quantity. The future prospects of climate change and population and economic growth will further exacerbate these issues where people’s desire for water intensive technologies such as flush toilets, inappropriate developments, such as golf courses, and water-demanding lifestyles will have to be counterbalanced against decreases in the amount of water available. Water foot printing exercises that highlight
consumption rates are an effective first step towards reducing water use. The central challenge to the future sustainability of the Succulent Karoo and its people will be the management of its water services for equitable, sustainable and efficient use. Well informed management of water for domestic consumption, food production and ecosystem functioning, together with careful land management and wise decision making will be essential. This will only happen if we ensure that local government has the capacity to use the IDP and SDF processes to develop and implement Integrated Water Resource Management plans and practice co-operative governance across all sectors (Atkinson 2007). Water ecosystem services also need to be considered in all development decisions.