IN the last decade, Zimbabwe assented to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. The convention is also known as the Convention on Wetlands. The convention seeks to protect and preserve wetlands.
The convention has what is known as “the Ramsar List” which lists the world’s most important wetlands and ones specifically protected under the convention. The list contains seven of Zimbabwe’s wetlands namely Monavale Vlei, Victoria Falls National Park, Cleveland Dam and four others.
These seven were put in as examples — Zimbabwe has many more wetlands than these named. The Ramsar Convention’s broad aims are to halt the worldwide loss of wetlands and to conserve, through wise use and management, those that remain. This requires international cooperation, policy making, capacity building and technology transfer.
The importance of wetlands
The Environmental Management Act 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”.
In other words, wetlands are a distinct ecosystem flooded by water either temporarily or permanently where distinct oxygen-free processes prevail.
They are particularly important for a great number of reasons. Naturally, wetlands filter water by breaking down harmful pollutants, including chemicals, separate them from the water and use them as fertiliser for the vegetation growing on the wetland. This also keeps the wetland soil rich. Wetlands are natural sewage systems as they filter water and water running out of them into rivers is clear and purified.
Building on wetlands that feed the Manyame River and Lake Chivero has had devastating consequences, both river and lake are silting up and even now there is talk of having to possibly decommission Lake Chivero which means the water situation for Harare residents will be even more dire. And without clean running water, diseases like cholera and typhoid flourish.
In times of heavy rain, wetlands (and “vleis” are part of wetlands and should come under the same protections) act as holders of water like sponges, and prevent flooding in their areas. Wetlands are also vital as they are natural carbon sinks and help with controlling our overall carbon footprint.
They also help to recharge our water table and so are a good source of water. In addition to all this, one wetland can be a habitat for hundreds of species at a time, some of which can even have medicinal value.
Zimbabwe’s standing laws
In total, wetlands in Zimbabwe cover an area of about 793 348 hectares which is approximately 1,5% of Zimbabwe’s total land area. As mentioned above, wetlands are crucial to the country and thus explains the need for their protection.
At present there are a number of laws that protect wetlands in the country. The Environmental Management Act, Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 and the Environmental Assessment and Ecosystem Protection Regulations. Under the Environmental Management Act, Town and Country Planning Act , Urban Councils Act and Traditional Leaders Act, the destruction of wetlands is criminalised.
Further, Section 73 of the constitution states that everyone has environmental rights and that we have the right to have the environment protected for the benefit of future generations. Section 73(b) specifically highlights that we must all work to prevent ecological degradation and promote conservation.
So why talk about wetlands?
Across the country, wetlands are increasingly coming under threat from rapid urbanisation. Land barons have been known to illegally sell off land identified as wetlands and locals have been buying up that land and building on it. Time and again, local councils themselves have been known to sell off land known to be wetland to foreigners for building projects.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain; without healthy wetlands the country faces the risk of running out of water. Such a consequence has already been felt by city dwellers as day after day water shortages are becoming more and more severe. Even in instances where the effects are not immediate, consequences are sure to follow in the long run.
With the destruction of wetlands, we face the risk of extinction of some species, forests, healthy soils and add negatively to climate change. Wetlands also provide good learning ground for students as well as for researchers.
Wetlands for water tomorrow
After mentioning the various uses and the importance of wetlands, it is clear that their preservation is important to us now more than ever. We need to consider how we can move forward with the damage that has already been done on some wetlands and what we can do to wisely use the wetlands we have left.
Awareness must be raised over the importance of wetlands and the city council as well as the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Tourism and Hospitality should seek effective ways and methods of prohibiting people from building formally or informally on wetlands. The action must be visible and the action must be practical.
Lip-service on this matter is no longer sustainable. Zimbabwe has obligations both under international law and domestic law to preserve and protect wetlands. Such obligations must be taken seriously.
Veritas Bill Watch.