Peatlands

Peatlands are ecosystems where - under conditions of permanent water saturation – dead and decaying plant material has accumulated to form a thick organic soil layer called peat. Peatlands are excellent water stores, providing water during extensive dry periods. However, their drainage and degradation cause enormous CO2 emissions: in the Sub-Sahara African region (South Africa excluded) peat emissions equal 25% of all fossil fuel emissions.

Distribution

Peatlands occur in many African countries in small areas. Estimations of the continent’s totals vary between 4,856,500 ha of peatland (FAO)[1] and 5,853,400 ha or 0.18% of total land surface (DOE)[2]. The African countries with the largest areas of peatland include Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Zambia. In Uganda alone there are already 64,000 ha of permanent swampland and as much land temporarily inundated in the wet seasons[3]
 
In the wet equatorial belt of Africa a distinction can be made between the areas flanking the Gulf of Guinea, another large depressional area, and those in Central Africa where peat formation has followed recent geological uplift, rift formation and volcanism. Some of the peat areas in Central Africa are at high altitude where conditions are more like those found in temperate regions. The full extent of the areas bordering the Gulf of Guinea is not known but, because conditions are similar to those found in Southeast Asia, it is surmised that they are probably extensive in Gabon, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Types of peatlands in Africa

Paramos are tropical ecosystems that occur between the upper limit of continuous, closed-canopy forest and the upper limit of plant life, i.e. between 3000 m and 5000 m. Locally these areas are known as ‘moorland’ in East Africa,
Dambos are seasonally or permanently wet grassy valleys, depressions or seepage zones on slopes. Locally they are known as ‘bas-fonds’ or ‘marigots’ (French speaking West and Central Africa), ‘inland valleys’ or ‘bolis’ (Sierra Leone), ‘fadama’ (Nigeria), ‘vleis’ (Afrikaans), ‘bani’ (Shona), ‘mapani’, ‘mbugas’ (Tanzania) or ‘dambos’ (Eastern and Southern Africa). Dambos partly contain organic soils (‘dambo peats’).

Threats

Peatlands all over the world are subject to drainage to lower the water table enabling agriculture. In Southeast Asia especially, peatlands are heavily drained and converted into oil palm plantations. In Russia and Europe, peatlands are mined for their peat. In the Netherlands in the past centuries large areas of peatland have been drained, their peat extracted causing large parts of the country to be located below sea-level.
 
In southern and eastern Africa many low-lying peatlands have been converted to agriculture and remaining natural peatlands are under severe threat of conversion and degradation. Climate change is expected to lead to unpredictable rainfall patterns with prolonged droughts that will further stimulate this trend, as peatlands are often the last areas left with water. This critical service of water storage and supply of montane peatlands in Africa is lost due to drainage and over-grazing.

Carbon emissions from African peatlands

The degradation of peatlands causes the stored peat to come into contact with the air, its high carbon content to oxidise and emit CO2 into the atmosphere. Due to drought and drainage, peatlands also become more fire prone. In the Sub-Sahara African region (South Africa excluded) these peat emissions equal 25% of all fossil fuel emissions. This indicated the Wetlands International report ‘The Global Peatland CO2 Picture’ first released in 2009, providing for all countries of the world the first ever overview on peatlands and their status, carbon stocks and carbon emissions. See the report’s table of Peatland emissions in Africa.
 
Example: Wakkerstroom peatland in South Africa
Wakkerstroom is a grassy peatland located in South Africa, characterised by predominantly a mosaic of different marshes. Due to its temperate climate, with frost in winters, it resembles European peatlands. It is a popular birding site, with species, such as the globally threatened Blue Crane, as well as the Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Blue Korhaan, Southern Bald Ibis and all 5 species of Harrier bird found in South Africa.
 
Through our partners from Wings Over Wetlands initiative we helped local partners to resist the conversion of Wakkerstroom into a large open coal mine by legal action and campaigning. The initiative also developed eco-tourism through the training of local people to become eco-guides, strengthened bird monitoring and set up the Wakkerstroom Wetland Reserve Training Centre. Read more on the Wings Over Wetlands website.