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Africa
8 Feb 2017

The Voice of many helping to Save Harare`s Wetlands

Children learning about wetlands on Monavale Vlei © BLZ
Children learning about wetlands on Monavale Vlei © BLZ
By Julia Pierini

Harare is the main city in Zimbabwe, situated in the Upper Manyame Catchment Basin that drains into Lakes Chivero and Manyame; which are important water sources for the City. The vleis, dambos, marshes and open green spaces in the city are a primary source of water for the streams that flow into the Manyame River. These exceptionally bio diverse, seasonally inundated and open grassland swamps have remained untouched until 15 years ago, when the population of Greater Harare began to grow rapidly, mostly due to migration from rural areas into the cities.

Resulting pressures from development, unregulated agriculture and pollution have led to the rapid loss of some important wetlands. This has seriously affected the biodiversity of the wetlands and the ecosystem services they provide, including the fundamental service of fresh water provision for the citizens of Greater Harare.

In 2001, the Monavale Residents Environmental Action Group was formed to prevent horticultural activities on Monavale Vlei, one of the few marshy areas that have remained well-preserved in Harare. It started as a Site Support Group (SSG) of BirdLife Zimbabwe (BLZ, BirdLife Partner), but eventually became a community based organisation under the name Conservation Society of Monavale (COSMO). BirdLife Zimbabwe and COSMO have worked closely together to advocate the preservation of all wetlands in Harare, including Monavale Vlei which is an important breeding site for wet grassland migrant bird species like the Striped Crake Amaurornis marginalis and Streaky-breasted Flufftail Sarothrura boehmi. BLZ and COSMO influenced Zimbabwe’s accession to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2013. Monavale Vlei was later identified as a Ramsar Site.

Yellow-mantled Widowbird © Martin Taylor

One year later, developers approached the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), with a project to develop cluster homes on the Monavale wetlands. The project was rejected by EMA. However, the developers went ahead to secure a permit from Harare city authorities in December 2015, allowing them to implement their project on the site. BirdLife Zimbabwe and COSMO jointly filed an appeal against the approval, as required by law and in 2016, joined forces with other civil society organisations and groups to form a coalition chaired by BirdLife Zimbabwe’s Chief Executive Officer. The coalition raised sufficient funds to continue with the legal resistance.

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In November 2016, the court ruled in favour of the coalition and declared that Monavale Vlei was not open to developers, referring to the Environmental Management Act.

The Environmental Management Act in Zimbabwe restricts development works on wetlands. However, this law is not always respected. The law requires that developers obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment Certificate from EMA - the agency managing environment - before they are issued a permit to carry on with a project on a wetland.

The Monavale Vlei ruling was an important step towards sustainable conservation of wetlands that offer a breeding site for birds in cities, and a healthy place where people live in harmony with nature.