Source: Protection of urban wetlands crucial | The Herald 03 FEB, 2020
Jeffrey Gogo, Climate Story
Environment Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu last week gave a chilling warning: all wetlands in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities will disappear within 20 years if municipalities continued on their current model of development.
A model that decimates these spongy, ecological greenbelts in favour of housing or commercial construction is simply unsustainable, Mr Ndlovu warned.
It is a tax on the unborn, a heist on biodiversity, one that risks food and water shortages as well as species extinction.
He singled out the Harare and Chitungwiza municipalities as the biggest culprits, blaming them for turning “our wetlands into a concrete jungle”.
“If we continue business as usual we will lose our wetlands in urban areas by 2040 impacting on ecological goods and services such as water provisioning in the right quantity and quality,” said Minister Ndlovu as he marked the World Wetlands Day, celebrated every February 2.
Now, Mr Ndlovu’s sentiments have long been held by some of his predecessors and many inside the environment and climate change circles — even though very little has been done to reverse the damage.
Serious questions have been asked over Harare’s system of urban planning, particularly the municipality’s role in fuelling the erosion of underground water, and that of soil, by allowing housing development to take place on wetlands.
Broader concerns centre on Zimbabwe’s readiness and ability to handle climate-linked disaster events that exacerbate land degradation and the washing away of soil aided by poor developmental decisions.
In Harare, problems appear to result from wrong developments on wetlands, river banks and the wicked relation between the land mafia (often thought of as housing co-operatives) and politicians.
Residents and businesses relentlessly build on Harare’s flood plains, ignoring advice from environmentalists.
In the past few months, the City of Harare approved plans to destroy the Sherwood Golf Course in Mabelreign by turning the recreational area — established to preserve the wetland on which it sits — into residential stands.
It is the latest in a series of assaults on wetlands by a reckless municipality, which is converting every open space in the city into residential or commercial properties.
Harare’s attitude on wetlands is particularly disturbing.
In 2017, about 30 families in Budiriro paid dearly for building their homes in the wrong place.
When a torrent of rain hammered the suburb in January of the same year, causing the waters in a stream adjacent to the land on which the houses were built to rise, the homes couldn’t stand the flood waters.
Eventually, the 30 families were left homeless.
Their houses were swept away.
The disaster traces its roots back to the Harare municipality’s lack of due diligence, allowing poor people to build weak structures on dangerous ground.
Traditionally, homes around Harare were built with proper planning, avoiding flood plains.
With wetlands free of housing development, excess water from run-off during seasons of unprecedented rain, induced by climate change, would rarely find its way into people’s homes as it does today.
Instead, the water was allowed to flow into fields, and into “spongy” wetlands, and into the small rivers surrounding Harare, eventually ending up in Lake Chivero.
Today, unplanned developments on wetlands or swamps have reduced the capacity for those areas to hold water. That, coupled with poor drainage and water from run-offs, have been some of the biggest causes of flooding in Harare.
Flooding is a major cause of land damage, washing away fine topsoil into rivers, lakes and dams at a scale, well, consistent with too much rain.
Yet, the urban erosion problem is a complex cycle of events that feed from each other into a perfect chaos — poor urban planning, wetlands decimation, siltation, water shortage, high flood risk and asset losses.
Across Africa, the silting of rivers from soil erosion has contributed big time to the drying up of the same.
Environment Minister Ndlovu promised to take action. “Government . . . is in the process of formulating wetlands management guidelines to provide a roadmap and tool-kit on the protection of wetlands,” he stated.
“Currently, stakeholder consultations are in progress as part of the process of formulating the wetlands management guidelines which should be ready for use during the first quarter of 2020.”
Promises are one thing. Action, another. Minister Ndlovu’s commitment to save wetlands will be measured by results from measures he is putting in place.
So far, there hasn’t been much to write home about from promises made by those who came before him.
There are numbers to support this argument.
Only a fifth of the 793 000 hectares under wetlands across Zimbabwe remain in pretty good condition, according to the Ministry of Environment.
Another fifth is badly degraded and the remainder are hanging just in there, it says.
Zimbabwe’s wetlands are a source of fresh water and livelihood for tens of thousands of people and wildlife, but they have declined rapidly in recent decades due to urban development, poor farming practices among other issues.
In Chimanimani, for example, villagers at Chieza have lived off the 6,1 hectare Nyambeya wetland for over 25 years, helping to build resilience against climate change.
Once settled upstream the Nyambeya river in a wet part of Chimanimani, villagers, led by headman Peter Chieza, began to make their own developments; setting up an irrigation scheme and community gardens that perennially guzzled from the wetland.
And to divert water into their fields and households, the brothers built a weir with a small dam wall, and a few others that had the money quickly connected water taps into their homes.
Cattle, goats and sheep roamed free in the plush greens of the wetland. Crops flourished.
After some time, the dam wall collapsed because of poor engineering, the weir’s carrying capacity crashed due to heavy siltation from bad farming techniques and deforestation of watersheds.
The wetland started to dry up, with farm output tumbling, hitting incomes badly.
But the wetland has now been fully restored, thanks to a multi-million-dollar intervention by global charity Oxfam, in partnership with the Zimbabwe Government and SAFIRE, with funding from the UN Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility.
Among other things, Oxfam assisted villagers to reconstruct the weir in such a way that it can withstand flooding, and increased its depth to allow it to hold more water.
Villagers also pegged contours to reduce soil erosion so that less soil goes to the river, hence ensuring that the wetland is perennially fed, while stopping unauthorised activities in this area of saturated water.
Farmers have once again started to enjoy a steady flow of water, crops and livestock are thriving throughout the year.
God is faithful.