Position Paper on Protection of Harare’s Wetlands: World Wetlands Day

Harare Wetlands Trust (HWT) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) appreciate the Ramsar Convention 2021 World Wetland Day theme of “Inseperable: Water, Wetlands and Life” to mark the celebration, as it reflects the need to preserve Harare’s headwater wetlands which play a large contributory factor in the provision of water to the City and its residents.

Harare is a wetland city. The geographical location of Harare on top of the watershed shows that the Manyame, Gwebi and Mazowe Rivers arise within the city. It needs its wide open grassy seasonally inundated headwater wetlands to replenish the groundwater which in turn feed the streams and rivers throughout the long dry season and frequent droughts. The wetlands also manage water in many other ways: they store water, hold flood waters, regulate the flow of water, purify water, hold siltation, they mitigate the effects of climate change by storing carbon. Their rich biodiversity is synonymous with the wetlands. The wetlands are not wetlands without this biodiversity – which works above and below the ground free of charge, saving the city millions of dollars in water management.

Without these headwater wetlands Harare would be reliant upon rainfall runoff in the summer months only, that is if it rains, and there would be little or no flow in the streams and rivers during the long dry season months and droughts. Lake Chivero’s capacity has been lowered by 20% due to siltation from cultivation on the city’s wetland ecosystems; the treatment, pumping and reticulation infrastructure is challenged leading to over abstraction of groundwater city wide.

Despite being a state party to the ‘Ramsar Convention’ (the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance), having constitutional protection for environmental rights, and having specific legislation to protect wetlands in the Environmental Management Act and the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations (Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007), about half of all wetlands have been lost through conversion to development.

It is critical that remaining wetland areas should be kept free of development and agriculture, restored to their natural state and specifically managed for water production.

The primary issues driving the loss of wetlands, the reduction of the source of the city’s water, are development on wetlands – both “legal” and “illegal”; cultivation throughout the open spaces of the city and along stream banks leading to degradation and invasive plant species, pollution.

To address the above-mentioned issues HWT, working closely together with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), Community Based Organizations and Civic Society, has been addressing the Legislative Framework, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Procedures for Prescribed Projects, and Town Planning Concerns.

At a meeting with the Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry in December 2020 HWT and ZLHR presented its submissions and made the following recommendations.

In order to address the identified challenges, HWT and ZLHR propose the following measures and recommendations to enhance the protection of Harare’s wetlands and without which the wetlands will continue to be destroyed and frustrate Harare’s chances of ever achieving a regular clean water supply to support both business and residents: –

1) To complete the ongoing mapping of the remaining extent of all existing wetlands in the city, including Ramsar sites of international importance and to ensure their territorial footprint is legislated/gazetted to prohibit any development on them. (The Minister of Environment may declare any wetland to be an ecologically sensitive area and may impose limitations on development in or around such area).

2) That the so gazetted wetlands map is widely publicised and that the authorities work collaboratively and together with non-state actors to educate the communities on the importance of preserving wetlands.

3) To amend the Environmental Management Act and Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations (SI 7 of 2007) to acknowledge that any physical development on wetlands is ecologically unsustainable and to prohibit any development on wetlands, including of ‘soft’ projects, other than in the most exceptional circumstances. The onus should lie on the developer to approach the courts to prove why development on wetlands is in the public interest.

4) To amend the First Schedule of the Environmental Management Act (prescribed projects), and Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations (SI 7 of 2007) to;

4.1 clarify that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) certificate is required for any development or interference with a wetland;

4.2 strengthen the public notification and consultation process for any planned interference with wetlands;

4.3 scrap fees to allow for the public to freely inspect EIA application and authorisation documentation;

4.4 establish clear criteria for acceptance or rejection of EIA applications in terms of the proposed project’s environmental impact and the precautionary principle of environmental law;

4.5 modify the process of appeal of EIA certificates to require that appeals are determined by a judicial or quasi-judicial body (such as the National Environmental Council or an Environmental Tribunal) on the basis of objective criteria and ecological studies, with reasons to be provided for any decision, not in terms of the Minister’s unilateral discretion;

4.6 introduce a default position that development must be stopped once legal proceedings challenging construction on a prima facie wetland have been initiated.

5) To ensure all ecological assessments and environmental impact assessments completed by EMA and any other public bodies are freely available to the public, preferably through uploading to a publicly accessible online database.

6) For EMA and the Honourable Minister to review all EIAs issued on undeveloped wetlands, and revoke such EIAs in terms of the current scientific evidence pertaining to the detrimental impact to Harare’s water source of failing to protect the remaining wetlands.

7) To call upon local authorities to review all Development Permits which were unlawfully issued in the absence of: EIA certificates, consultation with residents, and/ or the approval of Catchment/ Sub-Catchment Councils.

8) To call upon local authorities and the Ministry of Local Government to review the legality of all changes of use of land, subdivision and development permits, sales and leases on wetlands, and revoke all unlawful processes.

9) To call upon local authorities and the Ministry of Local Government to suspend the authorisation of any further developments on wetlands through changes of use of land, subdivision and development permits, sales and leases.

10) To call for review of the Regional, Town and Country Planning Act to remove the allowance for retrospective issuance of development permits/ regularisation of unlawful developments on wetlands.

11) To maintain wetlands as public land, nature reserves. The Water Act may be amended to clarify that wetlands are water resources vested in the President. President may acquire/ set aside wetlands for environmental purposes. Land may be bequeathed to the National Trust and protected in trust for public purposes.

12) To develop a national wetland policy to protect wetland ecosystems for purposes of water provisioning and biodiversity conservation.

13) To finalise national guidelines as a tool to enhance the protection of wetland ecosystems.

14) To amend the EM Act to strengthen enforcement powers of EMA, specifically to provide for powers to demolish unlawful developments on wetlands.

15) To establish and bring into operation the National Environmental Council as provided for under the Environmental Management Act.

16) To direct the development and production of Local Authority Environmental Action Plans and the National Environmental Plan in liaison with the Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing.

17) To establish nature reserves on urban wetlands and programmes for local management and restoration of wetland ecosystems for purposes of water provisioning and biodiversity conservation.

18) To fully domesticate the Ramsar Convention, in particular to provide specific protection to existing Ramsar Sites, to encourage the development of nature reserves on other wetlands and to encourage the adoption of further Ramsar sites.

19) To establish specialized environmental police and municipal police units with greater enforcement powers.

20) To establish an Environmental Tribunal of legally qualified experts on environmental issues, with punitive jurisdiction.

21) To establish an independent Environmental Commission to receive complaints on environmental matters.

22) To clarify the legal implications of imposing development controls over private property on wetlands, specifically as regards compensation. Explore options concerning the feasibility of acquiring land from private owners under eminent domain/ for environmental purposes under the Environmental Management Act, and explore potential funding options to support this. Establish mechanisms including a compensation fund for determining and awarding compensation to private property holders

23) To establish resettlement/ housing programmes to resettle vulnerable persons unlawfully settled on wetlands. The relevant institutions are called upon to address these issues as a matter of urgency, failing which the rapid loss and on-going degradation will continue to the detriment of the City of Harare’s water supply.

Source: Harare Wetlands Trust & Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights