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Reflecting on the Barotse Floodplain on World Environment Day 2020

The theme for this year’s World Environment Day that falls on 5th June is - It’s Time for Nature. I would like to take this time to reflect on some of the major threats to wetland ecosystem such as the Barotse Floodplains and Liuwa Plains in the Upper Zambezi Catchment.

Ecologically, these systems are still in a relatively pristine or in a near-natural state. The levels of endemism and biodiversity are overwhelming. However, the future of all this wealth depends on the wise use of these systems as these are literally the lifeline of local people and nature. This year marks two decades into the millennium and offers a unique opportunity to seriously reflect on human- nature interactions and consequent human impact on our wetland ecosystems. 

Invasive alien species are becoming a major biodiversity threat. Recent assessment under the WWF Zambia Upper Zambezi Program in collaboration with partners such as the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) confirmed the occurrence of Mimosa Pigra and the Australian red claw crayfish on the Barotse Floodplain respectively. A common finding from these assessments is the role that the hydrological regime plays in driving the spread of these species. 

Within the last five years, the invasive plant has spread from sporadic isolated pools along the Mongu-Kalabo Road to cover large areas of the plain driven by the flooding and receding of the Barotse. Based on lessons from other landscapes such as the Kafue Flats, the impact on biodiversity and the monetary cost of clearing invasive species can be significantly higher than the cost of limiting its spread. If not addressed, this will be one of the major biodiversity issues for the floodplain going forward.  

Prospect for large scale infrastructure particularly in the head waters of North-Western Province of Zambia and in Angola is another threat. The Barotse system is influenced by major tributaries such as the Kabompo River, Luanginga River, Luambimba River and the Lungwebungu River that originates in Angola. These tributaries contribute to the flooding of the Barotse Floodplain that extends over 550 000 hectares and doubles in size when flooded. While the system is relatively free flowing, proposed large scale water related infrastructure in Angola and North Western Province in Zambia could significantly affect the normal flooding and receding nature of the system.

WWF Zambia is working with various stakeholders such as the Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) in identifying and declaring the head water of the Zambezi River as a Water Resource Protected Area (WRPA). This measure aims not only to secure the biodiversity of the floodplain but also ensure water security of local communities and downstream countries of the Zambezi River. 

The Barotse system hosts over 225, 000 (this number would have increased drastically over the last ten years) who live and depend on the natural resources. The main livelihoods include fishing, livestock and agriculture. The Barotse Floodplain is one of the most productivity ecosystem in Zambia in terms of fisheries diversity and yield – probably due to the natural flooding and receding that replenishes fish stock. However, over the last couple of years, the occurrence of unsustainable fishing practices such as use of Mosquitos nets (known as Sefa Sefa), fish poisoning and drag nets has become very common. This has resulted in increased pressure on the system with reduced size of fish. Recent fish catch assessment surveys on major tributaries such as the Luanginga, Luambimba Rivers and the Barotse floodplain confirm. It is time to consider a holistic management framework and consistency in monitoring of fisheries biodiversity collectively with local communities, Government Departments and the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE).

© Jasper Doest/ WWF NL
Man ploughing in Barotse

Lastly, the floodplain is a linked lowland and upland system. A local resident once likened the Barotse Floodplain to two palms with the inner areas of the palms as the floodplain and outward areas of the palms as the upland forest areas. The likeness adequately captures the giving nature of the floodplain but also its vulnerability. The upland forest areas have come under increasing threats from both illegal and unsustainable forest logging that degrade the structure of these forests. Increased demand for hard wood forest species such as the Rosewood and the Zambezi Teak from international markers has resulted in increased extraction of these species. Local and national forests in districts such as Sesheke, Kaoma, Lukulu and Senanga have been heavily encroached. WWF Zambia is working with various partners in exploring and identifying opportunities for forest based enterprise projects that aim to up left local communities, contribute to better management and attract private sector investment in the forest sector. This would enable that we protect and ensure that our forests continue to give and thrive for future generations.

In conclusion, the theme for this year’s World Environment Day is a clarion call to seriously reflect on the role that wetlands play in local and national economies and the need for policy and management interventions that involve local communities, traditional authorities, Government and the private sector. It’s time. To take notice. To raise our voices for People and Nature.