Bone of contention: Ezemvelo environmental monitor Thembelihle Mkhwanazi with one of the thousands of dead fish  that littered the floor of Lake St Lucia early last in 2016. Picture: TONY CARNIE
Bone of contention: Ezemvelo environmental monitor Thembelihle Mkhwanazi with one of the thousands of dead fish that littered the floor of Lake St Lucia early last in 2016. Picture: TONY CARNIE

A Durban judge has ruled squarely in defence of nature in a landmark case that pitted the "selfish and outdated" interests of a small group of sugar farmers against the declining ecological health of Lake St Lucia.

St Lucia — the country’s largest estuarine lake and first world heritage site — has been starved of water for decades because of a decision taken more than 60 years ago to divert the course of the Mfolozi River into the Indian Ocean. This was done partly to protect farmers who set up sugar-cane farms in the fertile soils of the floodplain, which is vulnerable to regular, natural floods.

Before it was diverted in 1952, the river emptied into the mouth of Lake St Lucia, providing up to 60% of the lake’s fresh-water needs.

 The water crisis has been compounded by the recent drought, which led to nearly 90% of St Lucia’s surface area evaporating in 2016. This left the dry lake floor littered with the bones of thousands of fish and also jeopardised the health of hippos, crocodiles and numerous other wild species that live in or around the lake.

In a written ruling delivered on April 21, high court judge Mohini Moodley dismissed a legal application by Umfolozi Sugar Planters Limited and cane farmers Paul van Rooyen and Petros Maphumulo.

They had wanted to force the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority — the legal custodian of the lake and surrounding world heritage site — to bulldoze open the mouth of the Mfolozi River whenever rising river water threatened their cane fields.

iSimangaliso argued that artificially breaching the river mouth into the Indian Ocean would rob the lake of vital fresh water and be a major setback for a multimillion-rand plan to restore the natural ecology of the lake, funded through the World Bank.

Located at the meeting place between land and sea, the health of estuaries depends on a delicate balance of salty water from the ocean and fresh water from rivers. Several species die off if salt-water levels get too high, while too much fresh water can harm seawater fish and other creatures that use Lake St Lucia as a sheltered nursery ground.

Following a consultation process with sugar farmers and other interest groups, iSimangaliso launched a project a few years ago to restore the natural course of the Mfolozi River into the mouth of Lake St Lucia – but the plan ended up in court when some sugar farmers complained that this would flood their fields with river water.

 

However, the evidence suggested that less than 1% of the fields had been flooded when farmers went to court seeking an "urgent" interdict against iSimangaliso in 2016.

In her ruling, Moodley commented that: "Indisputably, both sugar-cane farming and the park have made and continue to provide constructive and laudable contributions to the economy and heritage of KwaZulu-Natal as well as SA as a whole."

However, she was not impressed by arguments by the farmers who felt entitled to demand that iSimangaliso breach the river mouth whenever the Mfolozi River rose in flood.

Scientific studies had shown that artificially breaching the river mouth had a "severe adverse impact" on the ecology of the lake and was also a waste of millions of litres of fresh water.

"I was therefore not persuaded that the custom of artificial breaching could be classified as reasonable," said Moodley. "To the contrary, the cane farmers’ insistence on breaching the mouth on the basis of custom to protect the interests of shareholders reflected a self-serving and dated perspective and a conscious lack of concern that environmental degradation runs contrary to section 24 of the Constitution."

She also found that some of the farmers "had been disingenuous under oath on several occasions" and ordered them to pay the costs of the main court case.

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