Time to wake up to the reality of wetlands degradation

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guest column:Edgar Gweshe

WETLAND degradation is a sad reality that has come with adverse effects for the City of Harare.

For Harare, wetlands serve as water sources that discharge stored water into our water supply systems hence their continued degradation has worsened the dire water situation in the capital.

Unearthing the causes of wetlands depletion
Archaic legislation on urban land use that is largely silent on wetlands and their invaluable services to the City of Harare is one of the causes of wetland depletion in Harare. Due to lack of an updated Master Plan, Harare’s land use plans are failing to factor in the need for wetlands protection hence the continued depletion of the water sources. Harare’s Master Plan was last updated in 1992.

The issue of land being used as a campaign tool by politicians especially during election periods has led to the sprouting of illegal settlements on wetlands in Harare. Bogus co-operatives usually find their way during this period as well. In a nutshell, elections have proved costly for the environment in Harare.

Corruption, abuse of office has led to inappropriate allocation of land. Land barons have also been banking on corruption and political connections to grab land in Harare and wetlands have not been spared.

Rural to urban migration has led to an increase in Harare’s population and consequently, there has been high demand for land for housing purposes.

A large number of Harare’s residents rely on urban agriculture as a source of livelihood and due to this, it remains an uphill task to convince them on the adverse effects of agriculture on wetlands. As a result of agricultural activities on wetlands, Harare’s main water source is silting and this affects the water levels in Lake Chivero. Wetlands’ natural function of purifying water has also been disturbed by fertilisers being used by urban farmers. Consequently, the cost of purifying Harare’s water has increased.

On urban agriculture, there are also two underlying factors contributing to this phenomenon with the major one being the economic crisis in the country and lack of knowledge.

Pollution remains a huge challenge as industrial effluent is finding its way into Harare’s water sources. This is largely attributable to industrial effluent, while penalties against perpetrators are not that punitive.

Quite often several construction projects have been undertaken on the justification of employment creation and economic progress yet a blind eye has been cast on the effects of constructing on wetlands with the biggest being increasing the risk of Harare running out of water — hence sustainable development will remain a pipe dream. The risk of flooding has increased as well.

We are running dry
Wetlands destruction has come with negative impacts on the water table in Harare thus worsening the erratic water situation in the capital.

Wetlands replenish ground water reserves and slowly release water into streams during dry seasons and droughts. Building on wetlands thus implies that rain water is prevented from seeping into the ground. For Harare, wetlands mean water.

Our main water source is silting
Harare’s main water source, Lake Chivero is silting largely due to urban agriculture on wetlands and this is impacting on water provision for the city.

And the fact that chemicals used in urban agriculture are finding their way into Lake Chivero, the cost of water treatment is high. Agriculture on wetlands has led to high levels of silt and chemicals in Lake Chivero.

As of Januray 2019, it was estimated that water level in Lake Chivero had reduced by 10 metres from 28 metres deep as a result of siltation caused by urban agriculture.

The attainment of World Class City Status by 2025 is threatened by these developments. We have become more susceptible to flooding and the effects of climate change.

Wetlands play a pivotal role in flood mitigation and their destruction increases the risk of flooding as has been witnessed in Harare. Residents living in wetland areas have not been spared during rainy seasons.

Wetlands act as natural heat sinks and thus help in cooling the city but this natural function has been disturbed due to depletion of the wetland areas.

Eco Tourism suffers while biodiversity disappears
Harare is an ideal candidate for eco tourism given that it has two internationally recognised wetlands, Monavale Vlei and Cleveland Dam which are recognised under the Ramsar International Convention on Wetlands. Harare is also dependent on Lake Chivero (which is also recognised under the Ramsar International Convention) for water supply. However threats to wetlands, including the Ramsar sites are a big blow to ecotourism.

Wetlands are the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems and tampering with them has serious negative implications on biodiversity.

Conclusion
Wetlands should be considered as part of our natural wealth which provide water thus making a vital contribution to human health and well-being. Walking the talk in terms of wetlands protection is critically important.