In South Africa, reversing land degradation would lead to economic gains


A study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and released last week makes the economic case for reviving a major river catchment in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. 

The report focused on the Thukela River basin, where farming, cattle-grazing and the spread of invasive alien plants have damaged fragile savannah and grasslands.  That has hampered the land’s ability to sustain livelihoods and to maintain essential ecosystem services, such as supplying water and trapping carbon.

The new study, The potential costs and benefits of addressing land degradation in the Thukela catchment, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, found that the benefits of restoring the Thukela basin would outweigh the costs. To arrive at those conclusions, researchers used satellite imagery and ecosystem accounting to map where ecosystem services are provided and thus where restoration would be most worthwhile.

“We must ensure that nature enters economic and financial decision-making,” says William Speller, an ecosystems and biodiversity expert with UNEP. “This is not about putting a price tag on every bee and tree. It is about understanding that intact ecosystems are ultimately worth more to humanity than when they are destroyed.”

The new report comes two weeks after the launch of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem restoration, a global push to revive the natural world. Human actions have significantly altered about 75 per cent of dry land and 66 per cent of marine environments, pushing many ecosystems to the brink of collapse.

Ecosystem accounting

Ecosystem accounting can help halt and reverse that damage, say experts. By assigning a value to the services nature provides humanity, it allows policymakers to see beyond traditional economic metrics, like gross domestic product, and gain a finer perspective on the environmental consequences of economic development.

For the Thukela River report, researchers developed pilot ecosystem services accounts based on the System of Environmental Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA), the international standard for ecosystem accounting adopted in March this year.

Researchers found that restoring large areas of grassland, chiefly through removing invasive alien plants, implementing sustainable land management and addressing soil erosion by replanting trees, would improve the basin’s ability to store carbon, lead to higher stocks of wild foods and medicines, create more productive rangelands for livestock farming, and bolster water supplies. (Invasive plants, like eucalyptus, are thirsty.)

“This study suggests that investing in measures to slow, halt and hopefully reverse the net impacts of poor land management in the past would likely have a positive net benefit and that addressing land degradation can be justified in economic terms,” says Jane Turpie of Anchor Environmental Consultants, lead author of the report.

The study highlights how restoring ecosystems can help to achieve national development goals in South Africa, such as water security and rural development, says Mandy Driver of the South African National Biodiversity Institute. “It illustrates that investing in ecological infrastructure is as essential as investing in other forms of social and economic infrastructure, such as dams and transport networks.”

The Thukela report is part of the Natural Capital Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services project in which South Africa was one of five participating countries. South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and is aiming to achieve “land degradation neutrality” by 2030.

Kiruben Naicker of South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said the report will help redirect investment “where it is needed most and complement the country’s resource mobilization drive”.

The Thukela study is part of a larger UNEP effort to ensure nature enters economic and financial decision-making. Speller says the techniques used in the Thukela River basin can be applied to degraded ecosystems around the world: “The new framework can be a game changer in decision-making. By highlighting the contribution of nature, we now have a tool that allows us to properly measure and value nature. It can help us bring about a rapid and lasting shift towards sustainability for both people and the environment.”

UN Environment


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