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Estimates of the impacts of invasive alien plants on water flows in South Africa

David C. Le Maitre
Greg G. Forsyth
Sebinasi Dzikiti
Mark B. Gush


The adverse impacts of alien plant invasions on water flows have been a prime motivation for South Africa’s Working for Water Programme. The approach used in this study builds on a previous national assessment in 1998 by incorporating factors that limit plant water-use, information from recent research and improved flow reduction models. The total reduction in flows is estimated to be 1 444 million m3·yr−1 or 2.9% of the naturalised mean annual runoff (MAR), less than half of the 3 300 million m3·yr−1 estimated in 1998. Two main factors account for this difference: (a) a decrease in the estimated unit-area flow reduction to 970 m3·ha−1·yr−1 compared with 1 900 m3·ha−1·yr−1 estimated in 1998, largely due to the new model being based on more representative reduction factors; and (b) the updated estimate of the condensed invaded area of 1.50 million ha (previously 1.76 million ha), although the taxa mapped for this assessment only accounted for 1.00 million of the 1.76 million ha reported in 1998. Reductions due to invasions in Lesotho are estimated to be about 161 million m3·yr−1 and those in Swaziland about 193 million m3·yr−1. The taxon with the greatest estimated impact was wattles (Acacia mearnsii, A. dealbata, A. decurrens) with 34.0% of the total reductions, followed by Pinus species (19.3%) and Eucalyptus species (15.8%). The revised estimate is considered on the low side largely because the extent and impacts of riparian invasions have been underestimated. If the current estimates that 4–6% of Acacia mearnsii, Eucalyptus, Populus and Salix invasions are riparian, are adjusted to a more representative 20%, 50%, 80% and 80%, respectively, the total reductions increase by nearly 70% to ~2 444 million m3·yr−1. Producing these estimates involved a number of assumptions and extrapolations, and further research is needed to provide more robust estimates of the impacts.

Keywords: plant water-use, flow reduction, mean annual runoff, riparian invasions, Working for Water Programme

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eISSN: 1816-7950
print ISSN: 0378-4738