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SOUTHERN AFRICA: The Indispensable Role of Mud Flats, Marshes and Swamps

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Dec 5 2007 (IPS) - The need for greater urgency in addressing loss of wetlands in the Zambezi River Basin has been highlighted at a recent meeting in northern Zimbabwe.

“Wetlands are crucial to all forms of life in the Zambezi Basin, yet they are not appreciated the way they should be,” said Tabeth Chiuta, the water programme co-ordinator of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

“Today, only 7.6 percent of the entire Zambezi Basin is covered with wetlands. This percentage is on the decrease because people are unaware of the importance of having and protecting wetlands,” she added.

Chiuta was speaking at the third Zambezi Basinwide Stakeholders Forum, held Nov. 27-29 in Victoria Falls, and organised by the ‘Zambezi Action Plan Project 6, Phase 2’ (ZACPRO 6.2). This initiative was set up by the Southern African Development Community to push for sustainable use of the basin’s resources – and, in turn, greater socio-economic development in the eight states that encompass the area: Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Zambezi Basin is the fourth largest river basin in Africa. It measures 1.3 million square kilometres, and is home to some 40 million people from 30 ethnic groups.

Wetlands encompass a variety of landscapes, including reef and mud flats, mangroves, estuaries, fresh and salt water marshes, and swamps.

Of the states that share the Zambezi Basin, Zambia has the largest number of wetlands. Various factors contribute to the disappearance of these areas, including agricultural encroachment.

“So far, the efforts to conserve the wetlands in the Zambezi Basin have not been integrated in the mainstream development and management strategy of the basin,” Chiuta told IPS.

“Wetlands should form an integral part of the Zambezi Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Strategy,” she added. But, “So far, there is no clear and specific policy on wetlands, and the ones that do exist are in some cases conflicting.”

This is partly due to the fact that governments of countries sharing the basin do not see wetland conservation as a priority, Chiuta said. As a result, they fail to budget for this matter, creating a situation where many wetlands – and the benefits they provide – are lost forever.

These benefits include flood regulation and water retention. “Wetlands are able to absorb and store large amounts of water; this is crucial when river or sea levels rise. By doing so, wetlands reduce the velocity of the water and protect people against flooding,” said Chiuta.

“Wetlands also play an important role in water purification as they remove bacteria and organic pollutants from the water and soil. Additionally, they provide food for the communities living in and around the wetlands.”

Wetlands are also of great environmental importance, Chiuta noted. “They provide food, shelter and water for countless bird and mammal species and they are the principal areas where fish breed and feed. Last but not least, wetlands in the Zambezi Basin – and elsewhere in the world – serve as a nursery for thousands of plant species.”

To improve protection and conservation of wetlands in the Zambezi Basin, the IUCN has started the Zambezi Basin Wetlands Project (ZBWP), now in its second phase.

“The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the sustainable use of the Zambezi wetlands ecosystems, taking in consideration all ecological, social and economic values,” said Wilson Mhlanga, project manager of the ZBWP, adding that the initiative was also aimed at influencing national policies and regional protocols relating to wetlands in the Zambezi Basin.

“We take in consideration the well being of wetland communities by involving them in the project,” he noted. “Communities need to be involved in this, as they are amongst the prime stakeholders of the basin.”

Daisy Nheta of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, a non-governmental organisation based in Namibia, also spoke of the need to include communities in water resource management and conservation.

“Conservation projects affect people living in those areas,” she explained. “Although most people do not have anything against conservation, they do not like not being involved. They want to be included in the process instead of being told what they are no longer allowed to do.”

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