31 Mar 2017

Zimbabwe's life-giving wetlands saved from cluster home fate

Vital advocacy work from BirdLife's Zimbabwean Partner has halted one of Harare's neighbouring wetlands from becoming a building site - a big win both for the capital's nature, and its people

Children learning about wetlands on Monavale Vlei © BLZ
Children learning about wetlands on Monavale Vlei © BLZ
By Jude Fuhnwi

Harare is a city on the rise. But as ever, growth comes at a cost. As Zimbabwe’s sprawling capital expands outwards, the wetlands that surround it are slowly but surely being lost to development, or tarnished with pollution. It’s a classic conflict - the need to build houses, versus the need to protect nature from unsustainable development. But in this case, things are more clear-cut. Harare's wetlands are vital, live-giving ecosystems, and their distruction is a situation that should concern not only local conservation groups such as BirdLife Zimbabwe, but everyone who lives in or near the capital of this landlocked southern African country.

Wetlands are productive environments that provide countless ecosystem services to humanity and biodiversity. Many species of plants, birds and animals, including the humans who live in and around the city, depend on the exceptionally biodiverse, seasonally inundated and open grassland swamps for survival. But development is posing a major threat to the future of these vital habitats. 

Zimbabwean authorities recognize this issue and laws are in place to prevent it. The country’s Environmental Management Act restricts development works on wetlands. The law requires that developers obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment Certificate from the agency managing the environment before they are issued a permit to carry on with a project on any wetland in the country.

Yellow-mantled Widowbird © Martin Taylor

However, this law is not always respected. “Wetlands in Zimbabwe are protected on paper but are being destroyed, compromising water availability and the quality of fresh water for sustainable development” says Julia Pierini, BirdLife Zimbabwe Chief Executive. “Loss of wetlands in Harare equals loss of water for the city”.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

It wasn’t always this way. For decades, the shallow marshes and open green spaces in Harare remained untouched. That began to change 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 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. Without wetlands, the city will have to spend more money to treat water for citizens, floods will be more devastating to nearby communities, animals shall be displaced or die and livelihoods disrupted.

“The root causes of the depletion of Harare`s wetlands are weak and poor implementation and enforcement of existing policies and legislation. Lack of political will to protect wetlands and an increasing population which ultimately results in demand for housing,” explains Pierini.

Alarmed by these threats, BirdLife Zimbabwe has stepped in to protect the disappearing wetlands and secure vital nesting sites for birds.

In 2001, a pressure group known as the Monavale Residents Environmental Action Group was formed to prevent horticultural activities on Monavale Vlei, one of the few wetlands that have remained well-preserved in Harare (so far). It started as a group of volunteer conservationists often referred to as Site Support Group for BirdLife Zimbabwe. The group however, evolved to become a community based organisation under the name Conservation Society of Monavale (COSMO). BirdLife Zimbabwe and COSMO have since then 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.

BirdLife Zimbabwe and COSMO influenced Zimbabwe’s accession to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2013 and a big success soon followed when Monavale Vlei was identified as a wetland of global importance and named a Ramsar Site.

However, this status alone is not enough to secure the site’s future. One year later, developers approached Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency with a project to develop cluster homes on the Monavale wetlands. The project was not approved by the agency but the developers went ahead to secure a permit from Harare city authorities in December 2015, which allowed them to implement their project on the site.

Noticing that important wetlands were under threat from rapid development, BirdLife Zimbabwe and COSMO teamed up with others and launched a legal challenge, as required by law.

In November 2016, the court ruled that the developer did not follow proper procedures to obtain a permit and declared it illegal. The verdict stated clearly that Monavale Vlei was not open to developers, quoting section 97 (5) of the Environmental Management Act which does not allow the issuance of a permit without an Environmental Impact Assessment Report obtained.

“I felt incredibly relieved and encouraged. If the courts continue to uphold the law, we stand a chance of not only fully securing Monavale Vlei`s protection status, but ultimately recovering and restoring Harare`s remaining fragile wetland ecosystems for people and biodiversity,” says Pierini.

 “We are fully aware that the verdict is a mere stepping stone in the right direction but it has helped us achieve one of our objectives on the road towards our overall goal of halting further wetland degradation and seeing the wetlands protected, restored and retained intact and that objective has been to influence the implementation of existing laws and regulations.”

The Monavale Vlei ruling was an important step towards the sustainable conservation of Harare’s wetlands – and ensuring the city remains a healthy place where people live in harmony with nature.