Wetlands for Sustainable Cities | WWF Zambia

Wetlands for Sustainable Cities

Posted on
02 February 2018
We often don’t stop to think about wetlands, their importance to our natural environment and their crucial role in our day to day lives. From reducing the impacts of floods, absorbing pollutants and improving water quality, wetlands form an integral part of our natural world.

World Wetlands Day is commemorated annually on February 2nd, marking the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on February 2, 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. The Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Zambia is among the 169 countries that are party to this convention having ratified the convention in 1991. World Wetlands Day gives us a chance to raise awareness about wetlands, their natural beauty and their indispensable utility to all people, regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas and whether they are directly or indirectly dependent on wetlands for their livelihoods. It also gives us the chance to seriously reflect on the status of wetlands management in the country.

Wetlands account for approximately 19% of Zambia’s total area. They comprise natural lakes, man-made lakes, open river channels, wooded flooded areas, floodplains, swamps and dambos. A total of eight (8) wetlands have been designated as wetlands of international importance since Zambia ratified the Ramsar Convention in 1991, namely, the Kafue Flats Wetland, Bangweulu Swamps, Barotse (Zambezi) Floodplains, Luangwa Floodplains, Busanga Swamps, Lukanga Swamps, Lake Mweru-wa-Ntipa and Lake Tanganyika.
The theme for World Wetlands Day 2018 “Wetlands for a sustainable urban future” highlights the important role of wetlands for sustainable urbanization.

Urban Wetlands & Cities
Urban wetlands are essential and contribute to making cities habitable. As urban populations grow and as cities expand, there is need to ensure that cities can deliver not only basic services such as accommodation, transport and water but that these cities are safe, resilient and environmentally friendly.
Urban wetlands make cities livable in many ways – mainly for the role they play as water filters and in flood control. Urban wetlands  absorb  excess  rainfall (like a giant sponge),  which  reduces  flooding  in  cities  and prevents  disasters  and  their  subsequent  costs.  The abundant vegetation found in urban wetlands, acts as a filter for domestic and industrial waste and this contributes to improving water quality. In addition to this, urban wetlands supply cities with water and are green spaces for recreation which helps to promote human wellbeing. Today’s  current  development  of  human  settlements  is  a  major  concern  for  wetland conservation and wise use. As our cities grow and demand for land increases, the tendency is to encroach on wetlands.  They are  often  viewed  as  wasteland  available  to  dump  waste  or  be converted for other purposes.

In Lusaka, there has been a growing tendency to drain such areas for urban development, especially if they have been neglected and overgrown with weeds. This approach ignores the benefits wetlands provide in absorbing and storing excess rainfall and improvement of water quality. Over the last decade, Lusaka has experienced severe flash flooding mostly in areas such Mass Media and Kanyama, which are urbanized areas sitting on wetlands. East Park, Manda Hill and Arcades are all examples of wetlands that were converted to malls thereby reducing provisioning for flood control and improved water quality.

The recurrent Cholera outbreak is a crucial indicator of continued unresolved issues in urban and peri-urban environmental governance and a stark reminder that the well-being of the environment is closely linked to our well-being. Our urban and peri-urban ecosystems are failing to provide the natural service of decontamination and filtering of water resources, as such, contaminated water has now entered the food chain. Recent reports indicate that as much as 42% of tested water sources are contaminated with fecal coliforms. As a result, many lives have been risked in addition to spending more money to treat water for safe consumption.

Urban wetlands can provide cities with multiple economic, social and cultural benefits. There is need to invest more in urban planning, enforcement, and maintenance of healthy urban and peri-urban ecosystems. There is also need to develop and implement an urban ecosystems restoration/protection plan for key cities in Zambia especially those that are vulnerable such as Lusaka to enhance climate change resilience, mitigate incidences of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, among others. The plan should target protection of aquifers, restoration of wetlands, forests and streams in the cities.

‘Wild’ Wetlands & Cities
In addition to urban wetlands, ‘wild’ wetlands also play a crucial role in sustaining cities. Millions of Zambians directly depend on wetlands for agriculture, fisheries, livestock rearing and much more through wetlands dependent industries like tourism, commercial agriculture, and water transportation. Poverty eradication and sustainable development cannot be realized without the critical goods and services provided by wetlands. A good example of this is the Kafue Flats. The Flats provide approximately 50% of the nation’s hydroelectricity; 44% of water supply to Lusaka’s 3 million domestic and industrial water users; nearly 90% of sugarcane for domestic and export markets; support an estimated 20% of the national cattle herd; produce maize, predominantly through small-holders; and sustain one of Zambia’s most productive wild fisheries.

Despite its geographical remoteness, the Kafue Flats plays a crucial role in the urban sustainability of Lusaka as well as many other cities – it is for this reason, that it is considered the lifeline of  Zambia’s economy and therefore must be sustainability and adequately managed for the benefit of millions of Zambians.

Threats to Wetlands
In spite of their invaluable benefits, wetlands in Zambia are facing many threats. Land conversion for large-scale agriculture, urbanization, water infrastructure development, over-abstraction, invasive species, unsustainable fishing practices, mining, pollution (pesticide discharges and industrial waste) and climate change are just some of these threats.

Unfortunately, not much has happened beyond the designation as wetlands of international importance. For example, none of the 8 wetlands have a management plan – one of the key requirements under the Ramsar Convention. In the meantime, the reality is that despite their outstanding ecological, social and economic values, Zambia’s wetlands suffer from uncontrolled, unsustainable and destructive utilisation patterns which in the long term threaten their ecological integrity.

It was only until the Environmental Management Act, No. 12 of 2011 that wetlands were recognized as deserving of special protection. The Act provides for the declaration of identified wetlands as protected areas but very little has been achieved since this legal provision. The National Wetlands Policy is long overdue and as a result, there is no integrated policy direction on wetlands management.  Last year, the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources showed great commitment and led the drafting of the National Wetlands Policy with relevant stakeholders.

WWF Zambia (Wetland Restoration Efforts)
WWF Zambia has worked to protect and restore wetlands for over 50 years and recently intensified its work on protecting freshwater ecosystems and wetlands in Zambia by engaging a wide array of stakeholders, including the private sector, through a ‘water stewardship’ approach. This approach draws attention to the multi-sectoral use of water resources, which are many a time conflicting in nature and leverages the power of partnerships and collective action in managing the different expectations and instills a sense of duty to care for all concerned.

More recently, WWF Zambia, together with the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership and the Department of National Parks have embarked on a three-year project to control the spread of the Giant Sensitive Tree (Mimosa pigra) commonly known as “Mimosa” and restore the Kafue Flats floodplain grasslands to productivity and enhance their ability to support important plants, wildlife and their habitats that are crucial for the flats. This project is a large-scale, highly intensive control effort with substantial community involvement that is aimed at reducing the area of cover of Mimosa to less than 5% of the current known cover and is also focused specifically on ensuring that the DNPW has the capacity and commitment to the long-term monitoring and small-scale Mimosa eradication efforts needed to retain project gains.

The project has generated employment opportunities for at least 150 people from surrounding local communities who have been engaged to remove Mimosa within Lochinvar National Park. The strategy adopted was to begin clearing Mimosa, targeting small founder populations and then advancing towards larger well-established infestations.  It is envisaged that this strategy will contain Mimosa and prevent it from spreading further into uninvaded parts of the floodplain or Game Management Area. Approximately 420 ha/ 3,000 ha within Lochinvar National Park has been cleared of Mimosa, so far. Aside from physical control, the Mimosa management options under consideration include chemical and biological control options. However, only physical control has been undertaken to date as consultations with the Zambia Environmental Management Agency regarding the use of chemical and biological control options are still ongoing and the Environmental Project Brief is still under review

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