Source: Wetlands key to Zim’s biodiversity | The Herald July 27, 2019
Phillipa Chinhoi Features Reporter
Government must take practical steps to buy back wetlands from private developers who bought land in these fragile ecosystems to protect the country’s biodiversity which is critical in conserving vital water sources, an environmental expert says.
Dr Yemi Katerere, regional director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told experts at a biodiversity workshop organised recently by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that it was critical for Government to reclaim all wetlands which were being wrongly designated for housing and property development to help prevent the loss of the country’s fragile habitat.
“Government must immediately buy back all wetlands to restore the country’s water ecosystem, something that could avert water shortages in the future,” he said. “It is not about climate change but it is about us. A deep transformative approach is required to make this possible.
“Wetlands ecological integrity remains a major concern. Transformative action is needed to protect and restore degraded ecosystems such as wetlands, a critical part of our natural environment that provides us with clean water.
“Without healthy wetlands the country faces a serious risk of running out of water. Community members have already come together to protect Monavale wetland, an important wetland in Harare which provides a habitat for animals and plants and ensures that the community has access to water.”
He said Government should also target to promote sustainable farming practices to help farmers utilise wetlands without destroying the ecosystem.
During the workshop participants highlighted that it was important for the Government and other stakeholders, including development practitioners, to work together to protect the wetlands.
“Preservation of wetlands can transform communities into economic hubs by adding value to food security. They also help in weaning ‘poor’ communities from depending on handouts as they will be able to produce food even during drought, hence the need to invest heavily on them as a nation,” said one participant.
Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year round or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.
They occur where the water table is near the surface, or where the land is covered by water.
Most authorities are selling wetlands without fully considering the importance of wetlands to the country’s biodiversity system.
Across the country there are a number of wetlands which are increasingly coming under threat from rapid urbanisation.
The parcelling out of land by the city authorities on delicate habitats not fit for construction, had according to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), led to a drastic fall in the water table levels within Harare.
The Environmental Management Act (Cap 20; 27) defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peat-land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including riparian land adjacent to the wetland”
Encroachment into the Cleveland wetlands and many others across the country has opened up the areas to illegal sand poaching, deforestation, unsustainable farming practices and garbage dumping.
Environmentalists say wetlands in Zimbabwe are under threat due to agricultural expansion, rapid urbanization, the drilling of boreholes, quarry extraction, deforestation and pollution.
Lack of proper management of the sites, in some cases, has also led to overfishing, siltation and the endangering of the fragile wetland ecosystem.
Wetlands are habitats to a wide range of plants and wildlife. They are responsible for recharging the water table, filtering and purifying water, preventing soil erosion, siltation and flooding.
Wetlands present a platform for ecological services, regulating and providing convenient water for many communities supporting fauna and flora.
Due to their significance in the production of food, wetlands are a key factor in the eradication of famine both at micro and macro levels — being life savers in real terms.
Wetlands are also handy in purifying and replenishing ground water. They act as sponges in holding water during rainy season before releasing it slowly to the surface. They are buffer zones that reduce flooding and mitigating against climatic disasters such as droughts.
Environmentalists say they also serve as natural sewage treatment works, absorbing chemicals, filtering pollutants and sediments, breaking down suspended solids and neutralizing harmful bacteria.
“We have many big dams in Zimbabwe that have at one time dried up during drought but wetlands will remain with water given the high ater table,” said one environmentalist. “Wetlands have proved to be safety nets in times of climatic shocks in the form of droughts.”
Experts also warn that freshwater mammals and amphibians are threatened with extinction because of the destruction of wetlands.
As a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, Zimbabwe has tamed provisions for the protection of wetlands under the EMA Act (Cap 20:27), Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 on EMA (Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems Protection) Regulations and Government Gazette 380 of 2013.
Laws that criminalise wetland abuse include the Environmental Management Act, Regional, Town and Country Planning Act, Urban Councils Act and Traditional Leaders Act.
The country has seven protected wetland sites and has a total of 1 117 wetlands covering 793 348 hectares which is about 1,5 percent of the country’s land area.
Environmentalists say the country now needs to take practical steps to stem the progressive encroachment on and loss of wetlands now and in the future through collaboration with various local and international organisations.
Zimbabwe is part of the Ramsar Convention whose mission is the conservation and wise use of wetlands, with the goal of achieving sustainable development.
The country, which ratified the Ramsar Treaty in 2011, now has seven wetlands that have been declared as Ramsar sites.
These include the Monavale Vlei, Cleveland Dam, Mana Pools, Lake Chivero, Driefontein Grasslands, Chinhoyi Caves and the Victoria Falls National Park.
Monavale Vlei, Lake Chivero and Victoria Falls wetlands were once on the verge of complete destruction through rapid urbanisation but intense lobbying saved the fragile ecosystems.
The designation of a wetland as a Ramsar site enables the exchange of standardised information on conservation practices and technical assistance and lends international tourism value to a place.
“There is need for policy makers to come up with policies that consider biodiversity seriously, there is need to demystify some issues so that pollution of wetlands stops,” said Moreangles Mbizah, a conservationist.
She warned that the reckless destruction of the country’s biodiversity could lead to the extinction of species, forests, healthy soils and climate change.
“Biodiversity is important for us and every living thing on the planet earth. It is also important to understand the food system of these species that can help support the conservation of all systems.”
The workshop largely concluded that there is need for a new narrative and called for transformative action to curb the acceleration of biodiversity loss.