May 28, 2022

Wetlands at the Crossroads

By Dr Rob Cunliffe, on behalf of BirdLife Zimbabwe and Harare Wetlands Trust

Harare is facing a prolonged water crisis whereby the city authorities are unable to provide most residents with a safe and reliable water supply. This has forced many residents to use groundwater, which in turn is leading to declining groundwater levels across the city.

The widespread destruction of headwater wetlands caused by development in wetlands is one of the primary causes of this disaster, with an estimated 50% reduction in remaining wetland extent over the period 2008-2019. In addition, most remaining wetland areas are now heavily degraded.

The headwater wetlands serve as essential natural infrastructure and play a key role in the delivery of clean water to the downstream water supply dams. In recent decades, development has been allowed to encroach ever deeper into these headwater wetland areas, to disastrous effect. This has led to increased runoff, increased incidences of flooding, increased siltation of Lake Chivero and Lake Manyame, reduced recharge of groundwater, a reduced period of inflow to the supply dams, and reduced quality of water arriving in the supply dams. In addition, there has been a loss of biodiversity and reduction in open and recreational spaces across the city. 

The net effect is increased vulnerability to climate change to the direct detriment of current and future generations. For these reasons, the on-going conversion of headwater wetlands to infrastructure cannot be considered compatible with “wise use” of wetlands, nor with sustainable development of the city.

The conversion of headwater wetlands to development is being facilitated by the City of Harare, the Ministry of Local Government and Public Works, plus the Environmental Management Agency and the Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry (MECTHI), who act in concert with private sector and state developers and development consultants to facilitate continued construction on wetland areas. Many developments proceed without necessary authorizations; permits are often issued without following due procedures and regularized later; loopholes in legislation are exploited to enable the issuing of environmental and development permits; and, in cases where permits are declined, these decisions are frequently overturned through appeal to the Minister. 

The situation is continuing to deteriorate rapidly. During the two-year period from mid/late 2019 to late 2021, analysis of Google Earth imagery reveals development activities being carried out on over 2,000 different sites within the remaining extent of wetlands as mapped during early 2020. This is a situation that requires urgent and decisive intervention. 

The MECTHI has recently published and gazetted a map depicting the spatial extent of the headwater wetland ecosystem in Harare. The depicted wetland areas all comprise sensitive ecosystems. The Minister of Environment needs to exercise his authority to declare these as “Ecologically Sensitive Areas” and to prohibit the issuing of any further Environmental Impact Assessment Certificates for these areas. The City of Harare could reinforce this through the passing of a resolution preventing any further development on the mapped headwater wetland areas. Similarly, the Minister of Local Government, under the Regional Town and Country Planning Act, has the authority to issue a development order that could specify that no further development on the mapped wetland areas. These are all doable measures that could be employed to bring a rapid halt to the further loss of valuable wetland infrastructure. 

Thereafter, work needs to begin on restoring wetlands to their natural state and managing these for water provisioning. There is need to develop models for the future management of wetlands under private ownership as well as for buying back wetlands and placing these under sound long term curatorship. For cases where settlements have developed in particularly flood prone areas, there will be need to develop a best practice model to enable the relocation of such settlements to alternative safe spaces. The use of financial incentives to encourage voluntary relocation from wetland environments could also be explored. There is also urgent need to plan how to accommodate future expansion of the city without compromising the vital wetland ecosystem on which the city depends for its water supply. 

BirdLife Zimbabwe (BLZ) is a locally-based registered, not-for-profit Nature Conservation Organisation promoting the survival of birds and biodiversity in Zimbabwe for both their intrinsic value and for the enjoyment of future generations. This is achieved through programs to raise awareness of the need to protect species as well as the natural ecosystems inhabited by Zimbabwe`s birds and wildlife which we, humans are also an integral part of, through policy, advocacy, education and training. For more info: www.birdlifezimbabwe.org

Harare Wetlands Trust is an umbrella trust incorporating Civil Society Organizations, Community Based Organizations and concerned individuals promoting the conservation of Harare`s Wetland Ecosystems to ensure the sustainable provisioning of water for Greater Harare.

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