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ENVIRONMENT-ZAMBIA: Efforts to Halt the Strangulation of Kafue

Newton Sibanda

LUSAKA, Aug 31 2007 (IPS) - The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international conservation organisation, has launched an initiative to protect Zambia&#39s Kafue River from pollution: the &#39Save the Kafue River Campaign&#39. At present, the river provides potable water to over 40 percent of people in the Southern African country.

The Kafue River: at risk from mining, deforestation, sewage -- and the notorious "Kafue weed". Credit: Newton Sibanda

The Kafue River: at risk from mining, deforestation, sewage -- and the notorious "Kafue weed". Credit: Newton Sibanda

Rising in the northern parts of Zambia, close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 960 kilometre Kafue is the longest river wholly contained within the borders of the country.

According to WWF Zambia co-ordinator James Phiri, the campaign will be used to inform people of the importance of the Kafue River to the country&#39s development.

"Recognizing the value of freshwater and forest resources in Zambia and in the Kafue River Basin in particular, and (the) need to improve local livelihoods, WWF has directed several efforts and resources aimed at sustainably managing the natural resources and improving livelihoods of local people at different points along the Kafue River," he said.

There are several sources of pollution in the Kafue River Basin – not least copper and cobalt mining near the source of the river.

Mining activities in the Copperbelt province in the north of the country provide almost 80 percent of Zambia’s exports, but also produce vast amounts of tailings – material discarded after minerals have been extracted – that pollute the Kafue River and its tributaries.


"The biggest challenge on the Copperbelt is mitigation of impact on the Kafue River. There is a lot of pollution on this river," said Cyril Lukeke, environmental officer for Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Investment Holdings (ZCCM-IH).

The Luanshya River, a tributary of the Kafubu River which in turn empties into the Kafue, is gradually being choked by mine tailings. However, the ZCCM-IH, as part of a corrective plan it is implementing through the government-run Copperbelt Environment Project, has been dredging the Luanshya River to conserve it.

Conditions are not very different near the town of Chingola, where the pressure of mining activities has resulted in the shrinking of the Mushishima River, another tributary of the Kafue. "Mushishima is dying downstream due to siltation. If we stop depositing solids the river will come back to life, because a river has a natural way of cleaning up," said Lukeke.

The Kafue Water Works in Chingola was forced to set up a floating pontoon that falls with the water level as siltation steadily makes the river shallower.

"When the plant was commissioned in 1975, the river was deep. In 1989, we changed to the flotation system because the pontoon follows the water level," explained production foreman Squeeze Sakala.

"The water level was about 10 metres, but now it is about five metres because of human activities in the catchment area upstream such as charcoal burning, mining and farming."

The water utility lost 43,000 dollars in billings last November when effluent from the Konkola Copper Mines in Chingola forced the plant to close down.

Accelerating deforestation in the Copperbelt province is also a serious threat to the Kafue River.

"Most forests on the Copperbelt are key river catchment areas…They protect major tributaries to the Kafue," said Newton Moyo, a WWF projects officer.

Earlier this year, population pressures forced the Zambian government to degazette 4,350 hectares of land in Chingola’s Luano forest reserve. This means that forests will be cleared for the building of schools, clinics, a market and agricultural production.

In addition, a continuous discharge of raw sewage into the river from the Kafue Sewage Treatment Plant (KSTP) has seriously degraded the water quality of the river. The plant was designed to receive raw sewage from the nearby estates and from Kafue town itself, and then to process the sewage with a view to discharging purified water into the river.

However, the KSTP has not been effective in dealing with this task because proper maintenance has not been carried out there. Electrical faults have left several pumps non-operational; as a result, the plant is unable to manage the volume of sewage generated.

An earlier report from a non-governmental organisation, Advocacy for Environmental Restoration Zambia, says that crocodiles in the oxidation ponds have "threatened employees of KSTP and nearby farmers whenever they intend to do some work in the vicinity of the ponds."

The organisation also says that because the oxidation ponds are not properly looked after, they become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and so increase the risk of malaria. The ponds are used to treat sewage, this through the interaction of sunlight, bacteria and algae.

Pollutants in the effluent released into the river have benefited various types of weeds, including the water hyacinth – or, as it is often dubbed, the "Kafue weed". The plant is choking up large segments of the river and is significantly changing the character of the Kafue flats further downstream. It is also threatening to limit the efficiency of the Itezhi-Tezhi and Kafue Gorge Dams.

 
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