Source: Wetlands continue to disappear | The Financial Gazette March 30, 2017
ENVIRONMENTAL groups in Zimbabwe could be fighting a losing battle in their bid to save wetlands from destruction due to the absence of political will to support their efforts.
Across the country, there is an invasion of wetlands by groups and individuals who seem to be immune to prosecution.
In most urban centres, iconic wetlands have been turned into residential areas with some now a hive of commercial activities where service stations, shopping malls and some such facilities have taken over right under the noses of city fathers.
Environmentalists are gravely concerned about the disappearance of wetlands, but without the tools to enforce by-laws, treaties and conventions which Zimbabwe is signatory to, they cannot do much to protect these cradles of biological diversity that provide the water and productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend on for survival.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands — an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of these marshlands.
The convention was named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where it was signed.
The treaty obligates Zimbabwe to conserve wetlands that act as sponges, store water and act as flood controllers and carbon sinks that purify and supply water to water sources such as streams and dams.
Several years after the convention was signed, Zimbabwe issued Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 providing for the protection of wetlands in line with the treaty.
And yet wetlands are disappearing from Zimbabwe as a result of human actions that should, under normal circumstances, not go unpunished.
There are several settlements that have sprung up on wetlands throughout the country with the full approval of city fathers and with tacit complicit on the part of the Environmental Management Agency (EMA).
Those who acquired residential stands on wetlands usually live under a cloud, constantly being reminded that their structures could be demolished anytime by the powers-that-be.
In fact, there are instances where properties have been demolished on account of being built in illegal settlements.
Interestingly, the authors of these illegalities go unpunished, while the whole country bears deep scars arising from their selfishness.
Those who fell for their tricks are also beginning to count their losses, especially in the wake of floods that pounded the country during the 2016/17 rainy season.
Recently, there were reports of a Mutare family that lost a child when their house, built on a wetland, collapsed as a result of flooding.
Any elementary builder knows that the weak texture soil on wetlands makes it unsuitable for construction, even using special foundations.
To build a strong structure on a wetland, the cost would be unbearable for poor families since the special foundation recommended during construction would require robust building material.
Wetlands are vital for human survival.
They are indispensable for the countless benefits or “ecosystem services” that they provide humanity, ranging from freshwater supply, food and building materials, and biodiversity, to flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation.
Environmental organisations such as Environment Africa are currently battling to stop construction on wetlands.
The not-for-profit-making organisation is attempting to save the Cleveland Dam catchment area where an illegal settlement started emerging towards the end of last year.
Constructed in 1913, the dam — covering an area of 2 500 hectares — is one of the country’s recognised Ramsar sites.
It was meant to supply water to the City of Harare.
In Harare alone, there are 30 wetlands under threat from illegal settlements.
Environmentalists have also raised the red flags on council-approved commercial developments such as the Longcheng Plaza, built on a wetland in Belvedere, Harare, which they say pose a threat to the city’s ecosystem just like all other housing settlements on wetlands.
Harare Residents Trust director, Precious Shumba, said council has a duty to enforce environmental by-laws and safeguard what remains of the city’s wetlands, but it was regrettable that councillors were at the forefront of decimating fragile wetlands.
“It is unfortunate that the councillors have taken turns to identify land for housing allocations in largely wetland areas, without due regards to the significant contribution of wetlands to the purification of our water as Harare,” said Shumba.
“The citizens have found the wetlands to be convenient sources of household income for subsistence. They grow their maize crops and cassava, using fairly acceptable methods of wetlands utilisation, but have all reported that the City of Harare does not really support their soil conservation initiatives. Instead, council is busy partnering land barons, who have political party backing, in decimating Harare’s wetlands,” observed Shumba.
In Harare, thousands of homes have over the years illegally mushroomed on wetlands in areas such as Kuwadzana, Glen Norah, Waterfalls, Warren Park, Borrowdale, Belvedere, Budiriro, Msasa, Ruwa, and Mabelreign exposing council to the ire of human rights activists and monitors each time it decides to destroy them.
The Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, has since warned all developers who have constructed properties on marshlands to leave to avoid losing property when the illegal structures are demolished.
Council claims it will not protect residents who were allocated stands on wetlands by bogus land developers.
It says if it approves construction on a wetland, the developers would be required to get permits from EMA, which has to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment first to determine the suitability of the land for construction.
While EMA fines local authorities for allowing settlements on wetlands, this has not helped the situation as corruption and impunity have become ingrained in the society’s social fabric.
Harare mayor, Bernard Manyeneni, admitted this week that council had been caught sleeping behind the wheel.
“There are times when the average stakeholder would have expected us to attend to illegal construction much earlier than we have done, so to that extent we are guilty as charged. We are trying to reinforce our development control,” he said.
Manyenyeni also admitted that demolitions that were a result of council’s deferred or delayed oversight come at a huge cost to both the settlers and council and sometimes too late for the environment.
“Any intervention must be done right at the beginning. The pain of destroying a completed structure is unbearable even to the enforcers, so we have a duty to manage this at the earliest possible opportunity to minimise mutual pain. We have acted too late at times to save the environment,” said Manyenyeni.
While the city fathers know exactly what needs to be done, they seem overwhelmed by the bigger forces that are at play.
The elephant in the room which they cannot tackle remains the lack of political will on the part of the ZANU-PF government to deal with those who are destroying the environment for selfish gain.
The culprits are an extension of the political elite and remain shielded from sanction for as long as they are on the right side of the politics of the day.