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It’s Time for Nature; Should socio-economic development endanger conservation of wetlands in Zimbabwe?

By Rodrick Moyo (Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association), John Majahana (Zimbabwe Environmental Law Youth Network) and Shingirai Sakarombe (Harare Wetlands Trust)

World Environment Day is celebrated on 5 June every year with this year’s theme focusing on ‘Biodiversity’. It is the United Nations day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action to protect the environment. Biodiversity is the term given to the variety of life on earth, this is provided, through its expression as ecosystems, goods and services that sustain our lives.People are changing ecosystems more rapidly and more extensively than any other period in human history[1]. An example of ecological diversity on a global scale would be the variation in ecosystems, such as deserts, forests, grasslands, wetlands and oceans. Ecological diversity is the largest scale of biodiversity, and within each ecosystem, there is a great deal of both species and genetic diversity. Sustainable development involves the management and conservation of biodiversity in such a manner that will provide persistent opportunities for future benefit.

Environmental damage is a pressing human rights issue, which negatively impacts on youth and children’s rights presently and in the future. Research has established that whilst negative environmental effects affect all people, children and youth are particularly vulnerable due to their evolving physical and mental development and status within society. Also, given the indivisible nature of human and children rights, the right to a healthy environment is a precondition of the enjoyment of the basic rights to life, health, adequate food and housing, and traditional livelihood and culture. There is therefore, a need to take action to ensure that children and youths’ right to a healthy environment is safeguarded as environmental damage harms them also.

Wetlands for Biodiversity

Wetlands are among the most productive life-support systems in the world and are of immense socio-economic and ecological importance to mankind. They are critical for the maintenance of biodiversity and perform a great role in the biosphere. Ironically, wetlands have been perceived as wastelands associated with disease, difficulty and danger. Emphasizing the negative impacts and ignoring their importance, these habitats were considered obstacles in the path of progress and hence drained, filled, despoiled and degraded for economic gains. The wetland loss has been responsible for bringing to the verge of extinction countless species of animals and plants that are dependent on this rich ecosystem. Inadequate understanding of the crucial role and utility of wetlands is a matter of serious concern. While we live in denial, the rate at which wetland ecosystems are depleting world over is heartbreaking. According to the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report, 85+ % of wetlands have been lost and 35% has been lost since 1970. This is a serious cause for concern.

The cause of concern in Zimbabwe

Wetlands in Zimbabwe are declining at an alarming rate, negatively impacting biodiversity and in turn people. (21%) of the documented wetlands in Zimbabwe are considered to be severely degraded, and a further 61% are moderately degraded (61%), with only 18% being classified as stable or intact. This highlights the critical need for improved management of wetlands.

The radical increase in population coupled with poverty in Zimbabwe over the years has far suppressed the sustainable utilization of natural resources such as wetlands. This is rampant in various communal areas of the nation including Zvishavane where decimation of wetlands has become a habit over the area. Rapid population distribution and settlement expansion has increased the demand in social services and social safety nets. This has rendered destruction of wetlands by some of the communities at the expense of attaining food security.Should environmental conservation be sacrificed at the expense of livelihoods becomes a pertinent question of the day which policy manners and developers are always challenged with.The jeopardized wetlands conservation is also attributed to escalating poverty in the area necessitating many people to rely on agriculture for survival. This has seen many wetlands being engulfed as land for crop cultivation. The rate of deforestation continues unabated due to population expansion and the ever demand for land for cultivation. The various species are dwindling and there is severe loss of biodiversity.

However, in some cases, the insatiable appetite for financial resources has ignited environmental injustices as this has necessitated radical destruction of wetlands. Hence the local authorities continue issuing new stands on wetlands as a matter of attaining financial gains. Furthermore, the dwindling and fading embracement of indigenous knowledge systems( IKS) in the community has disconnected harmony between people and the environment. Again the communities are no longer seeing the value of wetlands conservation since cultural values endorsing IKS are slowly dissipating. Wetlands were regarded as sacred and this regulated sustainable use of them however nowadays they are regarded as public.

Also, the ever-increasing demand for land for crop cultivation coupled with the clearance of land has posed serious deforestation, loss of animal habitats and severe loss of biodiversity causing the land to lose its aesthetic value. Hence this has fuelled degradation of wetlands as this has become a culture in the aforementioned areas. This has seen thousands of hectares of wetlands being engulfed as land for agricultural purposes each year. Moreover, the construction of buildings over the wetlands is and will be always a disaster to the well-being of wetlands if the situation remains unabated. The Makwasha and Mandava wetlands near Zvishavane town are under serious threat as the continued pegging of stands and houses construction has immensely vandalized massive sizes of the wetlands. To make matters worse aforementioned natural resource is being destroyed by the very responsible local authority yet the Environmental management Agency is doing nothing to curb such an environmentally injurious behaviour. Therefore inconsistent and poor law enforcement on wetlands by environmental custodians has created resistance among people and the audacity to continue destroying wetlands.

Henceforth, it is imperative to balance the pillars of sustainable development that include social, economic and biophysical environment so as not to endanger or compromise either pillar. The socio-economic development in Zimbabwe should not endanger conservation of wetlands as this is a critical natural resource with various benefits hence it should be conserved for future generations. There is need for punitive measures and strict law enforcement by EMA to cultivate grounds to create a culture of sustainable management of wetlands.

Wetlands in Harare and the water crises  

One may ask why Harare wetlands ecosystem should be of concern to us. Harare is faced with a serious water crisis at a time when the economy is not performing at all. The location of the City of Harare is unique compared with other cities in Zimbabwe. The City of Harare is built within the headwaters of the Upper Manyame Catchment basin, a wetland ecosystem located at the top of the watershed. The ecosystem forms part of the primary water catchment area for the city feeding into the Lake Chivero downstream where the City of Harare and Chitungwiza draws backwater for its residents. This means our actions upstream have serious implications on our source of water and these are manifesting as follows; heavily polluted water in the Lake, the Lake has never spilt since 2017, therefore, increasing the concentration of pollutants, increased water treatment costs among other problems. This is mainly because we have seriously degraded wetland ecosystems upstream by removing the biodiversity which is key for water storage, purification and provisioning. In the last decade (2009 – 2019), Harare lost close to 50% of its wetlands mainly due to developments encroaching into waterways and wetlands. This is rather terrifying if one is to reminisce that there will be no wetlands to talk about in Harare in the next ten years (2019 – 2029) if we are to remain on this trajectory. We need to act and the time to act is Now!

What needs to be done? Lets Act Now!

The World Environment Day comes at a time when Zimbabwe has ratified both the Ramsar Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This affords us an opportunity to reflect on our actions and consider giving nature its space. This is the time to act!

These are some of the interventions required to serve the remaining wetlands in Harare

  • Improved awareness of the crucial importance of wetlands especially amongst leaders
  • Improved protection through strengthened legislation and regulation
  • Improved management of wetlands through improved planning processes, increased involvement of community organizations and youths advocacy
  • Restoration of degraded areas

                                            Nature Matter Now! Happy World Environment Day

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[1] May R.M.2013. Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. 235 pp.

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