The ramifications of the current world-wide water shortage should persuade politicians in Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to incorporate the issues of wetlands into their priorities, said water experts at a SADC event hosted in Harare from the 17–19 of March to commemorate the SADC Water Weeks.
The call by experts comes in the wake of the destruction of important wetlands that feed into in the SADC region’s major river basins.
“It is necessary to raise awareness of the politicians about the very important role that wetlands play in replenishment of water sources,” said Kenneth Msibi, the SADC Water Policy and Strategy Expert.
“There has been an upsurge in the depletion of wetlands in the region, and the SADC water secretariat will be doing a scoping exercise in future to gather relevant information on the state of wetlands in the region. Therefore it will be appropriate for SADC member states to contribute to the production of regular wetlands reports, and develop appropriate wetland indicators for monitoring trends,” added Msibi.
One wetland being preserved for these reasons is the Khubelu wetland on the border between South Africa and Lesotho, which provides headwaters for the Orange River. The Khubelu, which was under threat from excessive grazing and agricultural activities, is a major water source for South Africa and Namibia. Covering 500 hectares, the South African side of the river Khubelu was declared a Ramsar site in 1991 – one of 1,855 wetlands worldwide recognised as being of international importance.
Hastings Chibuye, water resources engineer and hydrologist at the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZANCOM), says wetlands have been deteriorating and are likely to have a severe impact on the river basins in the region.
“The preservation of the watercourse sources should be embraced by all countries in the region. There is also need for countries in the region to harmonise standards, process and procedures with particular reference to regional and trans-boundary water resources,” he said.
Chibuye noted that the Ramsar Convention recognises the need to continuously keep under review the state of the region’s wetlands.
Zimbabwean Chief Hydrologist in the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate, Zvikomborero Manyangadze, concurred with his regional counterparts, “Although the region has not drawn guidelines related to wetlands preservation, there is commitment by governments to address the issue.”
Commercial development has been ranked as the major threat for the draining of wetlands in the region, including construction of tourism facilities and urban agriculture, which have led to hundreds of thousands of hectares of wetlands being drained.
Other threats to Southern Africa’s wetlands are commercial agriculture, settlements, excessive exploitation by local communities, and improperly-planned development activities. The prospect of immense profits from recently discovered oil, coal, and gas deposits has also led to an increase in on-and offshore exploration and mining in sensitive ecological areas.
In Mozambique, for example, wetlands and estuaries coincide with fossil fuel deposits and related infrastructure developments.
While in Zimbabwe, where the government has done well to come up with legislation on preservation of wetlands, it has failed to reign in commercial developers who have been erecting malls and housing projects left right and centre.
The Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of Africa’s most important wetlands and designated as the 1,000th world heritage site by UNESCO, has been home to many threatened species and the main water source of regional wildlife in Southern Africa. Yet it is shrinking due to drier climate, increased grazing, and growing pressure from tourism.
According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1996), wetlands are areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water.
A wide range of wetland types is found in Southern Africa. Examples of important wetlands in Southern Africa include the Okavango Delta and Kafue flats.
The SADC Water Weeks are being observed by all countries in the region at different dates from March to May. They provide an opportunity for country-focused awareness raising of the SADC regional water programme and river basin organisations’ initiatives towards the goal of improving water resources management and development.