Pungwe River Basin under threat from climate change, human blemishes

Ngoni Dapira

AFRICA, Zimbabwe, Mutare:

John Manguruwe, a subsistence farmer from Mutasa district in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe lives along the Pungwe River Basin. He uses the river to irrigate his horticultural crops that he grows all year round like maize, tomatoes, onions, bananas and yams.

Like many of the villagers that survive on subsistence farming using water from the basin for irrigation, Manguruwe, said more should be done to teach villagers’ about good farming practises to reduce siltation of the Pungwe River that is mostly being caused by increased stream bank cultivation.

“Some people do not follow good farming practices such as contour farming. There has been an increase in stream bank cultivation which results in siltation downstream of the Pungwe River, a serious threat to the future perennial flow of the river,” he said.

According to research by development partners, the livelihoods of millions of inhabitants that live along the Pungwe River Basin in both Zimbabwe and Mozambique have gone under threat.

On the climate change front, erratic rainfalls caused by the El-Nino effect coupled with the human blemishes on the environment pause a threat to the sustainability of the Pungwe River Basin.

Small-scale mining activities by artisanal miners (illegal gold panners) in the basin are affecting the rivers water quality whilst increased stream bank cultivation by rural farmers is threatening to silt the river downstream.

Economic activities among the basin communities are largely agro-based, including crop and livestock production, forestry, fisheries, gold mining and eco-tourism.

Stella Mapuranga, a widow and mother of five from Honde Valley, also relies on Pungwe River for subsistence agriculture

“I farm tomatoes, onions, cabbages, green beans and other vegetables like covo and spinach. The surplus I sell to fend for my family. Of which I can make $3 to $5 on a good day whilst in a month the profit can reach $50 to $70 from selling vegetables to local villagers. However, sometimes vendors from Hauna growth point nearby and some from Mutare come to hoard vegetables reaping bigger profits,” she said.

She said when vendors hoard vegetables prices depend on the season citing that on a good day, in the summer season, per week one could sell five to 10 boxes of tomatoes to vendors at amounts ranging from $7 to $10 per box. A box of tomatoes is weighed as two and a half (2 ½) 20 litres buckets.

The perennial Pungwe River covers a total area of 31,151square kilometres, 95.3 percent of which lies in Mozambique and 4.7 percent in Zimbabwe.

The basin has an estimated total population of 1.2 million people, projected to reach two million by 2023.

Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) programme director for rural development in Mozambique, Nito Matavel, said small-scale mining activities by artisanal miners (illegal gold panners) in the basin were affecting the water’s quality.

He said large quantities of sediment were routinely being released into the Nyamukwarara River as a result of gold panning activities. The Nyamukwarara River, a tributary of the Honde (which feeds into Pungwe River), drains some alluvial gold mining and panning areas in both Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where it collects a large quantity of sediment that remains visible along the river beyond Tete Bridge in Mozambique.

“Observations since 2003 have shown a drastic increase in sediment concentrations in the river due to the proliferation of informal gold mining activities. Previously, mining operations were confined to the Nyamukwarara River and its surrounding areas, in Manica Province. However, in recent times, the practice has now spread to other areas in the Pungwe River Basin, as far downstream as Muda River, in Sofala Province in Mozambique,” said Matavel.

Matavel said the eroded soil from the mining activities is deposited in the Pungwe River system as sediment, which consists mainly of reddish-brown silt and clay that makes the water unfit for the aquatic creatures, drinking, washing and irrigation.

Zimbabwe National Water Authority chief executive officer Dr Jefter Sakupwanya said the incumbent Government desilting programme launched in July would help increase the holding capacity of dams across the country that have now been heavily silted due to increased activities of gold panning, stream bank cultivation and other poor farming methods.

Manguruwe however said the solution lay in bestowing judicial powers to traditional leaders to enforce stringent penalties on villagers that practise stream bank cultivation and gold panners caught polluting the river.

“Although EMA (Environmental Management Authority) and the Pungwe Sub- catchment council are the regulatory authorities allowed to penalise perpetrators,the truth is they have been under resourced and have not been doing a thorough job. Traditional leaders need to be permitted to punish perpetrators as the custodians of the land,” he said

Chief (Victor) Saunyama of Nyanga South concurred that more powers should be legally set for traditional leaders to assist in the environmental pollution woes in the Pungwe River Basin.

“Chiefs are the custodians of the land but do not have legal powers to penalise perpetrators caught violating the environment laws. We are more hands on than EMA because we are custodians of the land and live in the basin. EMA officials are under resourced. As Chiefs we are just confined to penalising traditional social issues, but it is high time we are also allowed to reprimand people destroying the environment,” said Chief Saunyama.

Further research by SIDA predicted that severe water shortages would occur by 2025 in Mutare if the sole source of water remains the Pungwe River.

A water balance analysis, taking into account the temporal variability, shows that measures are needed to supply the Mutare urban water if the sole source should be Pungwe.

The report reveals that in 2025 severe water shortages will occur if a dam is not constructed upstream the present Mutare pipeline intake or if other sources are not utilised.

Although there are other options such as Osborne Dam and Small Bridge Dam currently used as alternatives for Mutare’s drinking water supply, the Pungwe River supply remains the best preference because of its pure water quality and natural gradient supply system.

The Osborne and Small Bridge water systems need generators to pump the water and more chemicals for the purification process of the water.

Oppah Muchinguri, the Zimbabwean Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, signed the Pungwe River Basin Transboundary bilateral agreement between Zimbabwe and Mozambique in July.

This was a co-operative effort by both Governments to create a framework for the sustainable and equitable management as well as the conservation of the water resources of the Pungwe River Basin.

Funded to the tune of $20 million by the Government of Sweden, the objective is to increase the derived social and economic benefits for the people living in the Pungwe River Basin, which is a shared watercourse between the two countries.

At the signing ceremony both governments agreed to tackle water pollution caused by gold panning activities, deforestation, stream bank cultivation and saline water intrusion.

Matavel hopes the agreement will also help prevent conflicts on water mismanagement in the Southern African Development Community.

“Although Zimbabwe only has about 5 percent of the total basin area, it accounts for 28 percent of the total runoff with its water use having more impact on water resources in the basin on the Mozambican side. Given such a scenario poor management can lead to several clashes,” said Matavel.