Residents, activists fight for protection of international site

ZIMBABWE’S Monavale Vlei, recognised under the Ramsar International Convention on the protection of wetlands, is under threat — yet again.

By Edgar Gweshe

In July last year, Harare mayor, Bernard Manyenyeni had to intervene to save the wetland after it had been hijacked by a group of war veterans under the Limpopo Housing Co-operative.

At the time, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), as well as council and the then Local Government minister, Saviour Kasukuwere claimed that developments on Monavale by Limpopo Housing Co-operative were illegal.

Investigations later revealed that the war veterans’ co-operative was riding on political connections.

Following immense pressure from residents and the Conservation Society of Monavale (Cosmo) the illegal developments on Monavale Vlei were stopped, with council deploying municipal police to evict the invaders.

The intervention by the Harare mayor followed another legal battle in 2016 between Cosmo and Meadows, Patel and others in which the former sought to block construction of 121 cluster houses on Monavale by the latter.

Administrative Court judge, Justice Herbert Mandeya delivered a ruling in favour of Cosmo.

In 2014, EMA had rejected a proposal by Meadows to construct houses in Monavale on the grounds that the area, being a wetland, was vital for Harare’s water supply
Latest developments, however, reveal a deliberate attempt to decommission the Monavale Vlei as a Ramsar site and allocate it to developers despite the fact that the Ramsar Convention describes Monavale Vlei as playing “an important role in the fragile ecosystem of the Manyame catchment basin, the main supplier of water for the city of Harare and its suburbs”.

In November 2017, the then Environment, Water and Climate minister Edgar Mbwembwe issued a permit for development of Monavale Vlei and this was meant to pave way for housing developments by Meadows on the protected wetland.

The permit was issued to Sharadkumar Patel on behalf of Meadows under licence number 8000031971 on November 10, 2017.

“This serves to certify that Sharadkumar Patel has been granted EIA acceptance to operate housing development on Stand 201 Monavale Harare and is permitted to operate in accordance with Part X1 of the Environmental Management Agency (Chapter 20:27) under the specified terms and conditions,” the permit reads.

Mbwembwe, however, claims that the idea to approve developments on Monavale Vlei was conceived well before his coming into office.

“When I came into office, the matter had already been concluded and there was communication to the effect that the housing project was of national importance. So I must say that by the time I came into office, the matter had already been concluded,” he said.

In an emailed response, Patel confirmed that the granting of the permit to develop on Monavale Vlei was above board. He said an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) certificate had also been granted.

“Yes we are [involved] and we do have an EIA,” he said.

Another representative of the Patels, Renuka Patel claimed the area was their family’s private property.

She further highlighted during an interview that they had received official communication to the effect that Monavale had been decommissioned as a Ramsar site and this paved way for housing developments on the vlei.

EMA spokesperson, Steady Kangata confirmed in an interview that permits had been issued for housing developments on Monavale. With regards to the decommissioning of Monavale as a Ramsar site, he said only part of the area had been decommissioned.

“There is a certain piece of the area that has been decommissioned, but Monavale still remains a Ramsar site,” he said.

Cosmo has since launched a court bid to stop the developments on Monavale Vlei on the grounds that the land in question is not registered in the name of Sharadkumar Patel or Meadows, which is claimed to be represented by Patel.

In the court application, Cosmo added that “there is no unit of land in Harare registered in the Deeds Office or the Surveyor General’s Office as stand number 201 Monavale and representations made in the EIA Assessment Report as to the size and location of the target area were false”.

Cosmo also claims that no wider consultations with residents, as stipulated under the country’s environmental management regulations were made before the issuance of the EIA.

On January 31, 2018, Cosmo also wrote to Environment, Water and Climate minister Oppah Muchinguri seeking a revocation of the EIA issued on Monavale. In the letter, Cosmo emphasised that Monavale is “one of the seven wetlands of international importance in Zimbabwe”.

The Harare Wetlands Trust (HWT) has since submitted a position paper to the Harare City Council Environmental Management Committee imploring them to act urgently as the destruction of Monavale, “which forms the headwaters of the Upper Manyame catchment basin, which feeds into Manyame River, minimises water supply downstream of the City of Harare”.

The HWT also queried the process leading to the issuance of the EIA on Monavale.

Their position paper to council read: “As well as providing pivotal services of water supply and purification to Harare residents and a unique habitat for rare animal, plant and birdlife, the vlei is also an integral resource to the residents of Monavale, a community centred on an ethos of environmental awareness and advocacy.”

The position paper by HWT followed recommendations by council on April 5, 2018 to assign the city’s director of works to conduct soil tests on Monavale Vlei before council can consider allocating the area for housing developments.

On May 10, council’s environmental management committee postponed indefinitely a hearing on the Monavale issue.

The committee’s chairperson, Herbert Gomba confirmed the development. He also confirmed that there was a battle for Monavale, with the Patels claiming “the area is not a wetland”.

Gomba, who is on record blaming corruption and abuse of power for wetlands destruction, revealed in an interview in April that council was in a fix as they usually get recommendations to approve construction by EMA, yet in other circumstances, they would be objecting to that.

The Zimbabwe National Water Authority has raised the red flag saying that destruction of wetlands has led to the water table in Harare drastically falling.

Muchinguri said she was in a meeting when contacted for comment over the issue. Repeated efforts to get a comment from her were in vain and she did not respond to text messages sent to her.

Residents, who spoke to NewsDay Weekender, blamed corruption and abuse of power for continued destruction of water sources in Harare.

“What the authorities are failing to realise is the fact that wetlands are not just pieces of land, but are important water sources for Harare. We are concerned that there is no commitment to ensure protection of wetlands and this spells disaster for us as residents,” Mabelreign resident, Sharon Musinga said.

Another resident, Brian Taramukai said: “As a country, we are betraying our commitment to international conventions because how can we allow developments to take place on Monavale, which is recognised under the Ramsar International Convention?”

First Lady Auxilia Mnangagwa is on record calling for stern action to protect wetlands and calls have been made to ensure her plea is matched with action on the ground.

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