Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services are the benefits derived by people from nature (Scholes and Biggs 2004). These services have been classified into the following four categories by the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2003):

Provisioning Services - products obtained from ecosystems such as freshwater, food and fuel wood;
Regulating Services- benefits obtained from regulation of ecosystem process such as disease regulation, pollination and water purification;
Cultural Services- non-material benefits obtained from ecosystems such as the aesthetic, educational and spiritual;
Supporting Services- services necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services such as soil formation, primary production and nutrient cycling.

These services contribute both directly and indirectly to human welfare and over-use of resources and the pollution of ecosystems can jeopardise the health of ecosystems that provide the basis for human well-being. Therefore, it is important that people living in and around the ecosystems of the Limpopo River basin do not exceed the capacity of the ecosystem's ability to withstand these pressures. This could lead to collapse of ecosystem function, destroying sources of food, removing the valuable services that the river provides, such as flood protection and reducing the ability of local people to maintain a livelihood.

Links between ecosystem services, ecological processes supported by the flow regime and human well-being.
Ecosystem services Human well-being Environmental flow component
and ecological processes
The flow regime supports the delivery of a range of different provisioning services such as clean water, plants, building materials and food. Basic material for good life. Fish supply: the life cycle of many fish species depends on the natural variability in river flows e.g. large floods are important for fishes being able to migrate as well as spawn.

Medicinal plants, fruits: drought levels enable recruitment of certain floodplain plants. Large floods disburse seeds and fruits of riparian plants.

Water supply: large floods recharge floodplain water tables.

The environmental flow regime helps controlling, pollution, pests and floods. Security, health. Flood control: riparian vegetation stabilises river banks. Flows that maintain soil-moisture levels in banks and deposit nutrients and seeds on the banks maintain riparian vegetation.

Pollution control: high pulse flows restore normal water quality conditions after prolonged low flows, flushing away waste products and pollutants.

Pest control: a river with environmental flows is more resistant against the intrusion of exotic species. Dammed, diverted and modified rivers that create permanent standing water and more constant flow regimes provide favorable environment for exotic species.

Spiritual, recreational, aesthetic services. Good social relations. Sufficient flows to maximise aesthetic values and contribute to cultural services are an important component of the environmental flow regime.
Biodiversity, nutrient and sediment cycling. Basic material for good life, security, health, good social relations. Large floods can maintain balance of species in aquatic and riparian communities. They can also maintain diversity in floodplain forest types through prolonged inundation (different plant species have different tolerance).

Adapted from: Forslund et al. 2009

Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA )

The Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA) was conducted to evaluate the state of southern Africa’s ecosystems, and their capacity to deliver services, across multiple scales. The SAfMA regional and integrated reports include detailed assessments about the Limpopo River basin riparian countries (1960-2000) with projections into the future (2030).

Water is an essential ecosystem service. Source: Schaefer 2010


The assessment concluded that there is a strong interaction between human well-being and the state of ecosystem services in the region (see Box below). Food, water and biomass energy provided by the ecosystem are directly linked to human well-being and human health is reliant on adequate nutrition. Information is available and documented for the provision of food through agricultural ecosystems; however, the informal sector and the role of hunter-gatherers are less documented and the contribution of ecosystem services to these activities most likely underestimated (SAfMA 2004). Food, fuel, medicinal plants and water are essential services to the rural poor in southern Africa, even if their use goes undocumented.

HIV/AIDS and Ecosystem Services

No study of human well-being in sub-Saharan Africa can ignore the pervasive impact of the AIDS pandemic. The demographic effects – for example, the plummeting life expectancy at birth throughout the region – will have a noticeable, but likely transient impact on the human population growth rate over the next quarter century. Perversely, the impact of humans on ecosystems may well increase as a result of the economic stresses caused by the disease. Families without other resources, and burdened with the care of the formerly economically active and labour-providing members, fall back on the use (and sometimes over-use) of natural resources to survive. At the same time, the knowledge and skills needed to manage natural resources, from the local to the regional scale, are being lost through premature death.

Important interactions between ecosystem service issues (such as poor nutrition, unsafe water and diseases such as malaria), poverty, and the impact and spread of AIDS is one reason that the disease has had such an impact in the region. For instance, inadequate protein and micronutrient supply results in a more rapid progression from infection to a debilitated state and death. Consequently there is less money and labour to grow better crops, leading to further under-nourishment. Similar exacerbating feedback loops exist for water and sanitation, and for control of vector-borne diseases.

Source: Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA) 2004

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken