By Wadzanai Mhombera

The continued destruction of wetlands across the country over the years, particularly in Harare and Chitungwiza, cannot go unchallenged. It is high time responsible authorities act decisively on this evil. I have watched with disappointment how wetlands in the capital have been turned into residential areas – suddenly wetlands have become habitable – how come?

Growing up in Bulawayo and spending every school holiday in Chiweshe Communal Lands, I observed that wetlands were left as breathing spaces by town planners while in the rural setup, the traditional rice crop was grown in wetlands or kumatoro as they are known in one of the local languages. Apart from that wetland was left as part of grazing land and the kraal head or headman would not allow a family pursue any other use to a wetland or let alone build structures there. In the olden days, wetlands would always be ‘wet’ as the name says, they would never go dry. Even their catchment areas were not disturbed hence there are sources of clean and purified ground water for communities.

Sadly, the situation has changed today in Zimbabwe. Houses have been, and continue to be built on wetlands, shopping centres and businesses are setting shop on wetlands, and churches are now domiciled on wetlands. Some residential areas built on wetlands, despite concerns from environmentalists, have actually been regularised by local authorities. As I write this article infrastructural developments on wetlands continues unabated in the capital city Harare and other areas across the country. Businesses have been built on wetland catchment areas and this has resulted in the wetlands slowly drying up.

A wetland is a distinct ecosystem that is inundated by water, either permanently or seasonally, where oxygen-free processes prevail. The primary factor that distinguishes wetlands from other land forms or water bodies is the characteristic vegetation of aquatic plants, adapted to the unique hydric soil.  Simply stated, wetlands are parts of our landscape that are defined by the presence of water.

Wetlands are important features in the landscape that provide numerous beneficial services for people and for fish and wildlife. Some of these services, or functions, include protecting and improving water quality, providing fish and wildlife habitats, regulate floodwaters and maintaining surface water flow during dry periods. They also supply clean water to the population during the dry seasons.

An immense variety of species of plants, insects, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals live or survive in a wetland. Many other animals and plants depend on wetlands for survival. If we continue destroying wetlands where will ‘our’ fish live? Where will our wildlife access reliable water?

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.

Yet study after study demonstrates that wetlands and their quality continues to decline and even ‘die’ in most regions of the world, thereby compromising the ecosystem services that wetlands provide to the people.

Environmental experts say about 27 wetland areas in Harare and Chitungwiza have been partially destroyed through constructions on them. In Chitungwiza, 14 out of 15 wetlands have been built on, and 13 of Harare’s 29 wetlands have been taken over for construction. Statistics point to nearly 60 percent of Harare and Chitungwiza’s wetlands having been invaded or taken over for infrastructure development purposes. Authorities manning urban councils have battled for years to stop people from settling on wetlands for residential purposes, but the calls have fallen on deaf ears. At law, all constructions on wetlands are prohibited.

This is now the time to be honest with each other concerning wetlands destruction. We are destroying an important aspect for human survival. When is this going to stop? This stubbornness is proving to be costly for the country, with human life being lost. In 2016, a Mutare family lost a child when a house built on a wetland collapsed, due to flooding. Many households in Harare and Chitungwiza now face continuous flooding in their homes during the rainfall season because they built houses on wetlands.

I know of some residents of an area called “Pagomba” or “Mugomba in Zengeza 4 suburb who now have to temporarily seek shelter at relatives’ homes elsewhere during the rainfall season. Their homes would not be habitable due to flooding. The reason is “Pagomba” is a residential area built on a wetland. The area is perennially wet. Children cannot even play outside during the rainy season as the whole yard would be soaked. When it rains, residents have sleepless nights in this area.

A politician would tell you that when people have already built houses on the wetlands, it is difficult to remove them, hence the need for a comprehensive solution. It is therefore critical for the nation to pose and consider the importance of wetlands in the life of citizens. Authorities need to come up with a solution to this challenge. Stakeholders in the environment conservation sector need to put their heads together to fight wetlands destruction. Failure to arrest the problem will result in the country paying a huge prize one day. Future generations will not forgive the present one for presiding over the destruction of an important feature in human life – wetlands.

While wetlands destruction continues unabated in Zimbabwe, some developed countries which destroyed wetlands during periods of industrial revolutions, such as China, are now crafting strategies to restore them. In February last year (2018) it was reported that Beijing had plans to restore or create 2 200 hectares of wetlands as part of China’s continued efforts in wetland protection. Is this what we want as a country? Will the country be able to fund such an initiative in future? Why not preserve the natural wetlands now which I am sure is less costly than to reconstruct them tomorrow.

EMA says Zimbabwe has approximately 1 117 wetlands covering some 793 348 hectares, which is about 1.5 percent of the country’s land area. It cannot be overemphasized that it is critical to ensure the wetlands are preserved for the future.

Wetlands are a key part of environmental protection. I envisage a beautiful Zimbabwe! Wherever you reside across the country, resist the temptation to ‘kill’ a wetland, for whatever reason, though it might seem justifiable and profitable, it is not, it will not work! Let us make Zimbabwe beautiful with wetlands.

*The writer of this article writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on email: wadzanai.mhombera@zbc.co.zw or wmhombs@gmail.com.