The water crisis that has become the bane of Zimbabwe will, within the next few years, explode to unimanageable levels if the continued decimation of the country’s wetlands is not brought to a halt.
A tour of wetlands around Harare this week revealed that their destruction in the capital has reached alarming proportions with most of them being turned into residential stands, shopping malls and industrial sites. Twenty seven wetlands were recently gazetted for development.
A wetland, according to a leading researcher Professor Christopher Magadza, refers to a piece of land that is permanently or periodically flooded and where the underground water table is close to the surface.
The significance of wetlands to both human and animal life, which has been appreciated since time immemorial, seems to have been lost to local authorities. Through greed and avarice, authorities continue to dish out wetlands to land developers for construction purposes.
Harare’s failure to supply adequate water to its residents and those of its dormitory towns — Chitungwiza, Norton and Ruwa — demands urgent action in the preservation of wetlands which could become an important source of water.
Prof Magadza said Harare’s water was now unsafe for drinking: “About 50% of the water you drink is clean,” he said. “The other 50% is your returned urine.”
He said several emerging diseases were attributable to unclean drinking water and it was scary that as much as 11 different chemicals had to be used to clean up the raw water.
“Incidence of liver cancer and deaths due to stomach troubles (not necessarily cholera) are increasing,” he said. “When the city receives the raw water, they have to present it in a drinkable state. Recently, the mayor of Harare said they used up to 11 chemicals to treat the water. Just think of what that will do to the water!”
The researcher said the catchment water supply for Chivero was on a swift decrease, making Harare increasingly reliant on recycled sewage so the need to conscientise people about the importance of wetlands in the purification of water had never been greater.
“The watertable for Harare has sunk from 15 to 30 metres within the last decade,” Prof Magadza said, adding that this was due to wetland loss and the illegal sinking of boreholes.
Borrowdale West, Gunhill, Lewisam, Monavale and Meyrick Park residents have raised objections with the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) following the gazetting and mapping of several wetlands in the capital by what they described as “unscrupulous” developers.
They accused some of the developers of using their political muscle to secure the pieces of land, disregarding the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) procedures and environmental legislation.
Dave Westerhout, a resident, expressed concern over construction work going on at the wetland that sits at the border of Gunhill and Highlands suburbs. This is located a few metres from Harare mayor’s mansion.
“The contractor did not get consent from the majority of residents as should be the case,” he said. “Their consent form was only signed by about 10% of the residents.”
Westerhout said they noted an anomaly where the contractor “hired” someone to do the EIA which, procedurally, should have been done by an independent evaluator.
The area, where mansions are under construction, is a massive water resource where, according to Prof Magadza, “millions and millions of litres of water accumulate”.
Dorothy Wakeling, the project manager of the Conservation Society of Monavale, said they were worried that the Borrowdale Wetland was gazetted for the construction of a mall, a hospital and residential suburb.
“They think it is a wasteland because there is nothing there,” she said.
“Plenty of objections have been lodged in recent years, but all the cases were lost. What we are saying is they can put their shopping centre elsewhere. The loss of water for this country at a time we are experiencing climate change is unimaginable.”
The conservation group, however, has managed to reclaim and restore one wetland in 2001, which was later officially recognised in 2005 as a national protected conservation.
EMA manager for education and publicity Steady Kangata recently admitted that shortage of accommodation in Harare had seen the construction of houses on wetlands.
“Wetlands have been affected to a larger extent by the construction of houses mostly in urban areas due to the shortage of accommodation,” Kangata said.
According to the Institute of Water and Sanitation, their projections indicate that by 2025 there will be severe water scarcity in Zimbabwe as a result of the deterioration and mismanagement of ecosystems.
At present, only 600 000 cubic metres of the city’s daily water requirement of 1,2 million cubic metres is being treated, much of which is lost through major leaks in an outdated reticulation system.
Thousands of cubic metres of waste water from industrial use and raw sewage from faulty pipes are being discharged into Lake Chivero on a daily basis.
Harare’s wetlands help in the recharging of rivers, headwaters and aquifers (which contain 97% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water) of the Mashonaland Plateau.
Highly effective filtration of this recharged groundwater, which task would otherwise fall on the expensive and under-capacity Morton Jaffray works, where even chemical dosing is haphazard.
Experts also say wetlands control groundwater flow, which prevents river siltation and soil erosion, but deposit nutrients which help maintain wetland biodiversity.