JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) - Floods that have devastated Mozambique and caused extensive damage in neighboring countries have been exacerbated by the loss of vital wetlands, environmentalists said.
''Floods themselves are a natural occurrence...but the severity of them has been increased by poor land management,'' said David Lindley, a wetland ecologist with the Rennies Wetlands Project (RWP), a group that promotes wetland conservation outside protected areas.
Lindley and other conservationists say the serious erosion of wetlands and overgrazing of grasslands on the upper watersheds of the Limpopo river in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa channeled raging waters into its lower watersheds or catchments in Mozambique.
The result was a disaster which has killed at least several hundred people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Lindley said grasslands that are overgrazed or damaged by poor burning practices are hardened, enabling water to flow over the ground and into rivers instead of seeping into the soil.
Adding to the problem is the general shrinkage of wetland area as these absorb excess water.
''A wetland is a sponge which soaks up extra water and then releases it slowly into a watershed or river system. When you remove it you remove this safety valve,'' said Richard Boon of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.
Half Of South Africa's Wetlands Destroyed
''About 50 percent of our (South African) wetlands have been destroyed, mostly through the draining of wetlands for agriculture or planting on wetlands,'' said Lindley.
Lindley said sugar cane and plantations growing trees alien to the local environment were the most common farms erected on wetlands.
''Exotic trees, especially gum and pine, are really hard on wetlands because they use far more water than indigenous species of trees,'' he said.
Lindley said now was the time for governments in the region to address the causes of the floods by working to restore wetlands and grasslands before the next deluge strikes.
Of course, extra heavy rains are also to blame for the catastrophe.
Climatologists have attributed the torrential rains to exceptionally warm surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean and the Mozambique Channel.
Some environmentalists say rising ocean temperatures are a product of global warming, which is believed to stem from vehicle and industrial carbon dioxide emissions.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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