7 March 2013

Namibia: Ecological Damage On the Increase

Windhoek — Disturbance of the ecologically sensitive central Namib increased in intensity over the last few decades. This is mostly blamed on recreational off-road driving, and more recently, on increasing exploration drilling for uranium, mining and filming mostly in protected areas (PAs).

The gravel plains of the central Namib are sensitive ecosystems that have been exposed to human disturbance since before the First World War. Many of the activities leave environmental scars on the gravel plains, some of them permanent. These activities have now brought the issue of ecological rehabilitation of these surface scars into sharp focus, says the Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit (NERMU) at the Gobabeb desert research station.

"Although many of the scars left by disturbances are probably permanent, it may be possible to rehabilitate the rest," NERMU said in a statement. A number of private companies, using a variety of creative methods, have tried to rehabilitate the scars, usually with a view to re-create an aesthetically pleasing landscape with few visible signs of human disturbance. However, NERMU says these attempts have seldom acknowledged the need to also consider the dynamics of the underlying gravel plain ecosystem.

With varying degrees of success, NERMU reports, some companies working with specialists even went further and tried to address not only visual rehabilitation, but also the long-term recovery of ecological structure, function and composition. NERMU says that because many disturbances occur inside PAs, where biodiversity conservation is the primary goal, the challenge of achieving ecological recovery, and not just visible scar removal, is particularly important.

"Apart from the need to recover the critical processes that maintain the rich plant, invertebrate and reptile communities, if ecological recovery is not realised the eco-tourism industry, which is based on natural, functioning landscapes, will not be guaranteed visually appealing vistas in the future," the monitoring unit says.

According to the unit, there is no intention to prevent economic activities such as filming or mining if these help Namibia to grow economically.

"Our best response is to make sure it is done responsibly and properly, and that we find ways by which biodiversity can coexist with humans."

Given all the challenging and often competing expectations in the rehabilitation of these surface scars, NERMU noted it is critical to make sure that information, knowledge and experience in this regard are shared among all stakeholders.

In response, NERMU convened a workshop on the rehabilitation of impact scars such as vehicle tracks and lay-down areas in the Namib, during mid-February. A number of scientists and environmental practitioners involved with arid landscape rehabilitation, representatives of film and mining companies and the Namibian Coast Conservation and Management Project (NACOMA) met at the Uranium Institute in Swakopmund.

The goal was to develop a conceptual framework to guide practices for track and footprint rehabilitation, properly test them, define the best approach to assess success, and identify knowledge gaps that need to be addressed. Through the workshop, NERMU hoped to start the process to resolve the many problems caused by these disturbances (and the perceptions of things going off the rails) by having an intelligent and rational debate about it.

The workshop was the very first step in a long and largely unchartered process of developing a widely accepted best practice guideline for rehabilitation in arid environments. "We hope that this voluntary guideline will eventually form the framework for rehabilitation planning, monitoring and eventual assessment of success," NERMU suggested.

Important outcomes of the workshop were consensus that a high level, best practice guideline would be a beneficial tool for companies and regulators alike, an understanding that this was the first of many steps in developing a collaborative approach to improve rehabilitation practices and the identification of knowledge gaps where the current understanding of processes in rehabilitation is not yet sufficient and research is required.

NERMU applauded initiatives such as the Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Uranium Rush and the draft Mine Closure Framework, which were the first attempts at identifying this problem and at defining a framework for appropriate management. NERMU feels it is now time to take these initiatives further, to prevent irreversible damage to the sensitive Namib ecosystem with its unique biodiversity.

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