Guest of honour was the Minister for Provincial Affairs, Harare, the Honourable Mrs Mirriam Chikukwa, who gave a speech about the extremely urgent need to protect our wetlands citywide, and prevent any further destruction to them, currently being perpetrated by construction, dumping and cultivation.
She strongly urged all the relevant Authorities with the power to prevent illegal development on wetlands to ensure that the law in this regard was adhered to, and enforced.
Well-known wetlands expert Professor Chris Magadza also gave a very informative speech, which included some excellent illustrations of their quantifiable financial value to us, the residents of Harare, and how much money they save us all – as long as they are left intact!
What may be defined as a WETLAND?
The description WETLAND encompasses vleis, marshes, estuaries, river catchment areas, flood plains, swamps, dambos and sponges – in fact ANY area which is either permanently or seasonally water-logged. Most wetlands globally are under threat of destruction through human activity.
A quick drive through the suburbs of the city of Harare will soon show you what is going on in our many vlei areas. These open green spaces which are seasonally waterlogged, have been protected from building development, dumping and crop cultivation by law, ever since Harare began to be planned and built, turning gradually into the sprawling city we know today. The value of these green spaces was early recognised. It is and always has been deemed by town and city planners the world over, absolutely essential to leave some green belts in any city un-developed and in their natural state, for the enjoyment of residents, and to break up what is otherwise a ‘concrete jungle’ devoid of attractive plants and trees. Even more importantly, water supply for the residents is a fundamental when planning any town or city. The vital role of Harare’s wetlands that can be found dotted about all over our suburbs, was fully understood by our early town planners. Harare was developed right at the top of the watershed. Some towns and cities rely on run-off from land higher up, into the rivers, dams and reservoirs that in turn supply their residents.
Not so Harare, which was built right by and around the rivers and tributaries supplying its water, and at the highest point in its area and its environs. This fact appears still to be lost on so many people who live in Harare, which is why they do not seem to place value on the vleis throughout our city, and just see real estate – and dollars and cents - when they look at these important green spaces. Because without them – our water will dry up and run out! These are our starting point for our water supply. These vleis - otherwise known as wetlands - store and purify our water for us. They act as sponges, soaking up vast amounts of water in the rains, then releasing it gradually into the rivers which supply our dams and down the line, the water we drink and use. They thus also prevent flooding. In addition, as this water is naturally released from the vlei over time into the water supply, so it is filtered and purified – at no cost at all.
These huge natural sponges can thus be recognised as a vital link in the chain of complex, intricate, highly efficient natural hydration processes and systems upon which all living species, ourselves included, rely. These vleis were once upon a time left well alone by would-be developers, both because the law was enforced and because these areas were recognised as highly unsuitable for construction in any case, given their seasonally water-logged nature. Cultivation and dumping on them was also tightly controlled, because the useful, valuable functions they were serving, as attractive open green areas, vital water reservoirs and filters, and in flood mitigation, was recognised, honoured and gratefully acknowledged.
Not so in more recent decades – and a trend that has alarmingly escalated in the past few years. Houses and buildings are to be seen going up all over the city in these precious areas, while annual mealie and other crops have gobbled up vast swathes of wetlands citywide. This illegal cultivation in wetlands has run rampant, doing irreparable ecological damage. All kinds of horrible rubbish is being dumped in them too, with unsightly, unsanitary and ecologically devastating consequences.
Huge tarred roads are going in on our many of our wetlands too, put there by would-be developers, breaking them up into segments, damaging them, removing the wonderful rich, dark, absorbent vlei soil, and rendering them useless to absorb water in their natural way since time immemorial. If you wonder why our roads are so often flooded and awash in heavy rain – this rampant vlei destruction in its many forms, is the reason! In addition, these wetlands are home to many unusual species of flora and fauna, the continuing existence of all of which are under severe threat from these many human incursions and activities.
All destructive human interferences with our city’s precious wetlands, critical to the survival of our city and of we who live here, if allowed to continue, will cause these wetlands to dry up completely. That day is drawing close - we are not talking decades away any more! And if they do dry up, the implications for Harare as a city, for on-going ecological integrity, and for species survival and biodiversity, are vast. So if you think those crying out for wetland conservation are just a bunch of ‘greenies’ who only care about wildlife - think again! In the final analysis – YOU are affected -personally. You drink water, don’t you? Can you live without it? This is not a problem for someone ‘out there’ to fix. It belongs to all of us!
Article by Rosie Mitchell