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Veld fires harm the environment: Ema

VELD FIRES in Zimbabwe have become a common feature of the dry season, often resulting in deaths of humans, animals and destruction of huge tracts of forests, grasslands and people’s property.

VELD FIRES in Zimbabwe have become a common feature of the dry season, often resulting in deaths of humans, animals and destruction of huge tracts of forests, grasslands and people’s property. Environmental Management Agency (Ema) environmental education and publicity manager Amkela Sidange (AS) told NewsDay reporter Thomas Chidamba (ND) that veld fires have caused a lot of harm to the environment in the country every year. The following are excerpts of the interview:

ND: Does Ema have human and financial capacity to monitor and protect the environment?

AS: In terms of organisational structure, Ema has human endowment at national, provincial and district level. Its mandate allows for the agency to establish community structures for the management of the natural resources at local level. Ema generates its own funds and in some instances, gets funding from government and development partners.

ND: We are now deep in the veld fire season, and we have lost human life and thousands of hectares of forests. What is Ema doing to educate people to stop veld fires?

AS: Ema started an accelerated veld fire awareness campaign in May targeting community, village and farm level engagements, among other platforms through meetings, talk shows and roadshows, radio programmes, bulk short message service to enlighten communities on the dos and don’ts during the fire season.

This year, the veld fire awareness campaign was launched under the theme Veld Fires and Food Security-Protect the Harvest. Some of the achievements include that 35 484,6km of fireguards were constructed on 2 339 farms and institutions across the country.

A total of 830 986 bundles of thatch grass and 684 337 hay bales were harvested in order to reduce biomass on 246 905km. Biomass provides the fuel load which propels veld fires, hence it must be reduced. The hay bales are strategic for providing fodder in the drier parts of the country.

A total of 6 076 fire prevention orders were issued for the construction of fire guards and putting in place of veld fire management plans from 5 373 inspections carried out during the accelerated fire awareness campaign.

We have also cleared a 4 426,3km road servitude stretch, which assists to avoid roadside fires. Communities were supported with bee hives for 84 beekeeping projects as a way of encouraging them to protect forests from veld fires, and at the same time, providing livelihoods.

A total of 156 training sessions were done focusing on farmers and fire-fighting teams. The COVID-19 lockdown restrictions led to reduced physical meetings.

ND:  Has anyone been arrested for causing veld fires?

AS:  A total of 852 tickets were issued and 59 dockets opened for fire offences. The agency also has a fire monitoring system for real time fire monitoring, then information is disseminated to stakeholders on the ground to activate response to fires and further investigations are made.

ND: How does the advanced fire information system work?

AS: It is a satellite-based advanced fire information system. It collects images of veld fire incidents as they occur countrywide. It shows the magnitude of the fire, the land use and the date and time when the fire started. Stakeholders on the ground are then alerted to mobilise for extinguishing and investigations.

This has received a boost following the coming on board of Agritex officers, especially those at ward level and has seen a timeous flow of information and fast response to fire incidents. This year, the country has recorded a decrease in average hectarage lost to fire per incident, and this is due to the fast flow of information and presence of trained community fire-fighting teams on the ground.

ND: Can this satellite-based fire detection system differentiate controlled and uncontrolled fires?

AS: Yes, it gives indications for further investigations.

ND: What is Ema doing to curb sand poaching in urban areas?

AS: Sand poaching remains one driver of land degradation in the country and according to recent rapid surveys done by the agency, approximately 1 594ha of land is affected by sand poaching in the country.

Harare is contributing 850ha to the statistics. Local authorities are mandated by law to set aside designated sites for sand abstraction to allow for abstraction to be done in a regulated manner, and these sites should be registered with Ema to allow for monitoring.

Sand extraction also requires a licence from Ema. Anyone found extracting sand in an undesignated site without a licence will be prosecuted. So far this year, Ema has prosecuted over 171 sand poachers and over 251 illegal sand transporters countrywide, with 150 illegal sand poachers prosecuted in Harare only.

Sand remains a valuable resource which local authorities should judiciously protect. The agency is in constant engagement with local authorities to integrate sand mining into their master plans and be considered as part of development, designate sand abstraction sites as provided for in Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 to address, demand and, at the same time, avoiding indiscriminate and uncontrolled sand mining.

Local authorities must also develop Local Environmental Action plans (LEAPS) as provided in Section 95 of the Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20:27) and infuse sustainable sand abstraction.

They must do community capacity building on community based natural resource management considering registering of community sand abstraction sites and monitor controlled sand abstraction. Law enforcement agents must conduct a blitz on sand poachers, and education and awareness to communities and sand miners must be done.

ND: Unplanned suburbs sprouting in major towns often lead to the rise in farm brick production, which at most, result in land degradation. How are you controlling the situation?

AS: We collaborate with the Zimbabwe Republic Police and other stakeholders to stop unlicensed brick-moulding operations. Brick-moulding should be done in permissible areas under a licence from Ema.

However, growth of urban areas remains within the purview of local authorities and the agency is working with local authorities to gazette local by laws which prohibit use of farm bricks in infrastructural development.

To date, Kadoma and Chinhoyi town councils have banned use of farm bricks, with more expected to do the same for sustainable urban development.

ND: What is Ema’s position on construction taking place on wetlands?

AS: Construction on wetlands is prohibited by section 113 of the Environmental Management Act.

ND: What will happen to infrastructure already built on wetlands?

AS: It can be affected by flooding when flash floods occur. Some can collapse, crack or have permanent wetness.

ND: Some local authorities are channelling raw sewage into major rivers, others have been fined by Ema. Do you think fines are the solution?

AS: To some extent, yes and the agency also opens dockets for the same. In the meantime, the agency has opened cases against all local authorities found discharging sewage into the environment.

Currently, there are four cases before the High Court and about six more local authorities await to be taken to court for the same offences of polluting the environment.

Recently, Kariba, Norton and Gwanda were convicted by the courts for offences relating to poor sewage management. The punitive measures are meant to make local authorities realise the need to process the effluent to acceptable standards before it is discharged.

ND: What is your comment on mining taking place in protected areas, such as national parks and national monuments?

AS: This was banned by government in 2020 and the agency remains guided by the pronouncement. Otherwise, mining should be done after an Environmental Impact Assessment, which includes the opinions of all stakeholders involved.

ND: Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Minamata Convention that bans the use of mercury in gold trapping because it is hazardous, not only to people, but also to the environment. Have you started enforcing the ban?

AS: Zimbabwe recently ratified the Minamata convention, hence it is still at the stage of looking for alternatives towards conforming to the principles of the convention which allude to the reduction of mercury use and its discharge into the environment. The agency is, however, not aware of the ban referred to by your question.

ND: What is Ema doing to curb the menace of artisanal gold miners who are major contributors to land degradation?

AS: Ema is working towards regularising artisanal miners, hence the use of a simple template Environmental Management Plan instead of compiling an Environmental Impact Assessment which could be cumbersome for small-scale miners. Once they are registered, monitoring will be easier hence land degradation reduced.

Follow Thomas on Twitter @chidambathomas