Implications of urbanisation on wetlands


By Chiedza Nzembe
THE Bible in Matthew 7:12 states that everything that we do, we do for ourselves. This statement applies to our social lives as well. As we celebrated World Wetlands Day, we needed to dive deep into the implications of urbanisation on wetlands and how they influence our lives.

As a gift to humanity, if I had the chance, I would choose the ability to see and understand our actions from the standpoint of a third party. It is possible to solve most of the problems we face in life by observing them through a different lens.

The world over, environmental crisis has become one of the most pressing problems currently facing humanity. Yet, despite climate change, exacerbated natural hazards, freshwater crisis, communities choking on waste, and species facing extinction, we are not alarmed. We get up every morning and carry on with the same self-destructive routines. Although this message has been circulated many times before, it is critical to continue circulating it due to the need to save humanity from these hazards. It is time to wake up and make a change for ourselves and our planet.

The growth of cities and towns often comes at the expense of rural areas. People migrate to urban centres in search of greener pastures, leaving rural areas. Urbanisation is sparked and extended by this migration. Urbanisation entails clearing the natural environment in order to build man-made structures such as houses, shopping centres and hospitals.

To ensure environmental sustainability, these activities must be conducted under an established authority and in accordance with relevant environmental laws.

What is more, even though we all have heard the term “wetland”, some of us may not fully comprehend what it is and how important it is for our survival. Wetlands are known as “Matoro” in Shona. The soil in these areas is permanently covered with water throughout the year.

We only have inland wetlands in Zimbabwe, while countries bordering oceans have both coastal and inland wetlands. In wetland ecosystems, topography, geography, climate, water, vegetation and even human disturbance play a role.

Wetlands serve as habitats for biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the presence of species that are unique to a particular area and not found anywhere else on earth.

Moreover, they are considered transition zones, where the flow of water, the cycling of nutrients and the energy of the sun interact to form a unique ecosystem characterised by hydrology, soils and vegetation.

Harare’s primary source of water, for example, comes from wetlands, according to Harare Wetlands Trust. Over time, water collects in wetlands and flows downstream to Lake Chivero and Lake Manyame.

With the rapid expansion and development of the city, less water is infiltrated into groundwater reservoirs.

This is because the natural soil surface is concealed under pavements, roads, compacted by huge vehicles, and roofs to mention a few. Wetlands recharge groundwater reservoirs. Unfortunately, development is encroaching onto already endangered wetlands putting them at risk even further. For example, about 50% of wetlands in Budiriro have been lost within 11 years (Harare Wetlands Trust, 2019).

Furthermore, urbanisation is increasing the loss of ecosystem services because of the extinction of wetlands. Ecosystem services are simply the benefits humans derive from healthy natural environments.

They are essential for our survival. For wetlands, ecosystem services include flood control, shoreline stabilisation, storm protection, water purification, cultural value, biodiversity conservation, climate change regulation, food and livelihoods.

In our communities, waste has become infinite sand. Without strategic waste management in urban areas, there is the risk of unlawful waste dumping, throwing of litter everywhere, and poor sanitation diseases lingering around.

Keeping our environment clean is not something that was taught to us as a core value. While we clean our cars, houses, etc, most people tend to treat the natural environment as a dumping ground.

All this waste finds its way into wetlands, piles of plastic get lodged in-between vegetation, kill aquatic animals, become part of our food chain after being ingested by animals, not to mention the sewage disposal effects.

We all know that smell that wafts through the windows of our cars during a drive and we rush to close them, that is if we do not point fingers! This affects wetlands through the concentration of nutrients which cause overgrowth of vegetation covering surfaces of water, warding off the sun and oxygen, and eating nutrients needed by other important forms of life to survive.

There is also the introduction of pathogens, heavy metals, and pharmaceuticals. All this weakens the immunity of the ecosystem as a whole, throwing it off balance.

While I believe that protecting the environment is very important, it is not as simple as volunteering for clean-ups or agreeing to environmentally-sustainable ideas without proactive actions. Protecting the environment is respecting and revering life. It all starts with the mindset.

Most people are in pursuit of material gains because they are the measurements of wealth, worthiness, and status in society.

We then attach our ego, confidence, friends, family to these material gains when they can easily disappear with the flip of a fly’s wing.

Do you think someone with this mindset can spare a moment to think of protecting and respecting the environment or they will always be horse-headed to search for material gains?

Life lies in the simple everyday things, the morning, sunset, birds chirping away, waking, dawn, the smile on your family’s faces when you are together, the pleasing aesthetics of the environment you see each day as you go about your day!

With this type of mindset, you learn to see value in things that matter. It becomes easier to make conscious decisions that are considerate to everything and everyone around you.

Apart from changing our mindsets, we must go above and beyond to make environmentally-friendly and fully-informed decisions. In Zimbabwe, we have laws that protect the environment in the Constitution — section 73 of the Environmental Management Act, Environmental Impact Assessment, and Ecosystem Protection Regulations. Why not read and understand these laws? We have the right to stop any development activities that destroy our environment because it deprives us and future generations.

Considering the above, knowledge is power. Knowing your rights and laws when it comes to the environment ensures informed and wise decision-making. Wetland areas are being illegally sold to build houses and develop under our watch here in Zimbabwe. The land tends to be cheaper which lures people to it. Without knowledge and care for the environment, people opt to buy the land. It is a very complex issue where this goes on and laws are not enforced. Bear in mind that building a house or any structure on a wetland is not sustainable. The buildings are prone to fast depreciation because of high levels of water in the ground.

Think about it, you incur a financial loss, and create an unhealthy environment for us and future generations.

Communities in Harare have a water crisis, most rely on donated community boreholes. People stand in long queues for hours on end in the blazing sun for water.

Our lives could be so much simpler if we saw ourselves as part of an ecosystem that needs balance, caring, and proactive action! Climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, weather hazards will only get worse if we do not change our mindset towards sustainability and environmentally-friendly lifestyles.

Finally, teaching children to value and respect the environment at home apart from schools is another key tool in protecting wetlands.

Would it not be amazing if families could go out on short, cheap trips and learn about wetlands? Have children engaged and learn what they are, their importance and how the rest of the environment connects to them. Not only do they learn but you get to bond as a family.

The environmental crisis seems like a hopeless case. Accumulating illegal waste dumpsites, raw sewage are normal sights and smell in our communities, diseases we contract from living in unhealthy environments and so on. But remember this: A better tomorrow starts with you making a wise decision today. And if not you, then who?

Do we not put boundaries on what we accept and don’t accept in our lives? Why can’t we do the same for the environment? To protect our wetlands, we must have detailed knowledge about them. By protecting the environment, we will be protecting wetlands.

  • Chiedza Nzembe is a passionate environmentalist and climate change advocate. For comments please