The South African Water Act (1998) defines a wetland as land which is transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems, where the water table is usually at, or near the surface, or the land is periodically covered with shallow water, and where the land in normal circumstances supports or would support vegetation typically adapted to life in saturated soil. The type of wetland is often defined by the degree and consistency of immersion in water and the plant communities/vegetation types that it sustains.

The majority of the larger wetlands in the Limpopo River basin are located in Mozambique along the Lower Limpopo and Changane Rivers. This is driven mostly by climate, soil and hydrological conditions. There are other instances of wetlands distributed throughout the basin, but they are much smaller in scale.

The vegetation, fish and crustacean communities of wetlands can provide valuable contributions to livelihoods. To learn more about the role that wetlands play in sustainable livelihoods, please refer to Sustainable Livelihoods section of the Environment and Well-being chapter in the People and the River theme.

The map below shows a high-level assessment of the distribution of wetlands across the Limpopo River basin, sourced from the WWF Global Lake and Wetland Database (GLWD). Also shown are Ramsar sites, which are discussed below.

Wetlands in the Limpopo River basin. Source: Lehner and Döll 2004



The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and is generally known as the Ramsar Convention. It is an intergovernmental treaty that provides a recognised framework for national action and international cooperation in the conservation and wise use of wetlands and the natural resources associated with them (Ramsar 2010).

One of the fundamental concepts of the Ramsar convention is Wise Use, which is defined as "the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development".

Ramsar Definition of Wetlands

Lakes and rivers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands and peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, near-shore marine areas, mangroves and coral reefs, and human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs, and salt pans.

Source: Ramsar 2010

Ramsar Sites in the Basin

There are only three Ramsar designated wetlands in the Limpopo River basin:

  • Makuleke Wetlands
  • Nylsvley Nature Reserve
  • Verloren Valei Nature Reserve

The location of these sites are shown in the map above, in relation to other wetland areas. Alternatively, explore the locations of these Ramsar sites using Google Earth

Malukele Wetland, South Africa. Source: Ramsar 2010


Following are descriptions of each Ramsar site, extracted from the Ramsar fact-sheets.

Makuleke Wetlands

Ramsar site no. 1687
Location: Limpopo, South Africa
Size: 7,757 ha
Coordinates: 22°23'S 031°11'E
Status/Type: National Park
Description: An excellent example of a floodplain vlei type, most of which lies within the Kruger National Park, bordered by Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the north and east. Prominent features include riverine forests, riparian floodplain forests, floodplain grasslands, river channels and flood pans. Flood pans are depressions in the floodplains which are intermittently filled from floods and rains - they are of great importance in this ecosystem as they hold water right into the dry season, thus acting as a refuge point for wildlife and waterbirds during both winter and summer months, and there are 31 of them found on these floodplains, where herds of Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious) are found. The floodplains attenuate floods, resulting in reduced flood damage in downstream areas of Mozambique, are important for groundwater recharge, and maintain riparian and floodplain vegetation. In the Makuleke Region of the National Park there is an attempt to harmonize biodiversity protection with the interests of rural dwellers through cooperation between the Community Property Association of Makuleke community, South African National Parks Board, and many government departments. The proclamation of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) in 2002 through an international treaty between South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe aims at jointly managing the bordering National Parks and conservation areas, and the Ramsar site will benefit from that protection status.

Source: Ramsar 2010

Nylsvley Nature Reserve

Ramsar site no. 952
Date: 07/07/98
Location: Northern Province, South Africa
Size: 3,970 ha
Coordinates: 24º39'S 028º42'E
Status/Type: Nature reserve.
Description: The nature reserve has riverine floodplains, flooded river basins, and seasonally flooded grassland, with the dominant wetland type being a seasonal river associated with a grassland floodplain. The wetland has the endangered roan antelope Hippotragus equis, and the area serves as a breeding ground for eight South African red-listed waterbirds and is the only site in South Africa which is a recorded locality for wild rice, Oryza longistaminata. The area is open to tourists, who usually come for birdwatching, and volunteers work in the area to help clear alien invasive plant species and build bird hides.

Source: Ramsar 2010

Verloren Valei Nature Reserve

Ramsar site no. 1110.
Date: 16/10/01
Location: Mpumalanga, South Africa
Size: 5,891 ha
Coordinates: 25°17'S 030°09'E.
Status/Type: Nature Reserve.
Description: A provincial protected area above 2000m altitude comprising more than 30 wetlands (14% of the site's area), ranging between 2 and 250 hectares, primarily permanent freshwater marshes, with the emergent vegetation waterlogged for most of the season. The area is especially important hydrologically because it acts as a sponge in the upper catchment of important river systems for both South Africa and Mozambique, ensuring gradual release to more populous downstream regions during rainy periods. It supports high botanical diversity and is one of the last areas with suitable Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculata breeding habitat. A variety of wetland types, characteristic of the region is represented, and a significant number of vulnerable and threatened plant, butterfly, and mammal species are supported. Population density in the area is low, but farming and grazing occur in the surrounding areas. A management plan, including controlled burning, is in place, employing local people. Small-scale avi-tourism occurs and guided tours are planned. No urgent threats are foreseen, though introduced exotic plant species are being watched carefully.

Source: Ramsar 2010

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken