Zimbabwe will join the rest of the world in commemorating World Wetlands Day (WWD) on the 2nd of February, 2020 under the theme, “Wetlands and Biodiversity”. This day is celebrated as a means to mark the Wetlands Convention that was adopted in the town of Ramsar, Iran in 1971. In light of the persistently low rainfall in Zimbabwe, we need to reflect on the importance of wetlands in our lives, especially in fighting climate change.
Zimbabwe has designated 7 wetland sites of international importance covering 453,828 hectares of land. These wetland sites are protected in terms of section 73 of the Constitution, the Environmental Management Act and the Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems Protection Regulations. According to section 2 of the Environmental Management Act, wetlands are defined as “areas of marsh, fen, peat-land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including riparian land adjacent”. These areas provide numerous environmental, economic and social services such as pollutant removal, wildlife habitats, groundwater recharge and often not discussed, carbon sequestration.
What is Carbon Sequestration ?
Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Pressure on Zimbabwe’s Wetlands
The recently increased pressure on Zimbabwe’s wetlands is evident from the increased and sometimes unauthorised use of wetlands in infrastructural development, urbanisation; mining and agricultural activities. This pressure has been further intensified by “redundant cultural values […], corruption, weak local institutions, undervaluation of wetlands’ ecological, economic and social services, and disregard for wetland protection regulations”. Furthermore, the true economic value of wetlands in Zimbabwe still needs to be quantified.
Wetlands Climatic Functions
Principally, wetlands are well known for their climate regulatory services. When healthy, wetlands provide a rich array of plants and animals which may greatly benefit the broader Zimbabwean populace.
Currently, Zimbabwe has been affected by the adverse effects of climate change and is currently experiencing one of its worst droughts. Wetlands can abate these climatic effects by naturally regulating the quantity and timing of water discharge during droughts. An inverse role in times of floods can also be undertaken by wetlands assuming a buffering and flood storage service. On the whole, wetlands provide climate change adaptation livelihood services in the form of fuelwood, bark and timber. The tragic rate at which wetland destruction is currently occurring however threatens to jeopardise this vital livelihood coping mechanism, especially in drought circumstances that are now becoming more frequent in Zimbabwe.
Wetlands also provide climate change mitigation functions. They are one of the greatest carbon storage facilities on earth as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that is then converted into other carbon compounds and cellulose. Globally, wetlands are estimated to be storing 500–700 gigatonnes of carbon. The disturbance of wetlands will, however, result in the release of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, three major heat-trapping gases.
Plans to Preserve Zimbabwe’s Wetlands
Through the Environmental Management Agency, Zimbabwe is making concerted efforts to protect the natural functions of wetlands within the context of sustainable development. In 2019, a national validation meeting on the Zimbabwe Wetlands Guidelines was undertaken. The guidelines are meant to ensure the sustainable utilisation of wetlands in Zimbabwe. Everyone hopes that the upcoming guidelines will aid in ensuring that competing interests can equally be considered. No one interest should trump another working within the wise use concept of wetlands.
Action needed to conserve our wetlands
International conventions, national legislation, policy and regulatory framework and commemoration days aimed at wetlands conservation will all be futile efforts if this does not result in a behavioural change on the ground. Zimbabwean citizens should understand the true and holistic value of wetlands upon which they can embrace the costs of their destruction. The country [Zimbabwe] is hoping to become an upper-middle-income economy by 2030, however, this target cannot be attained with limited focus on social and environmental costs outlined in the sustainable development concept.
The Zimbabwe United Nations Development Program’s biodiversity conservation project is currently focused on the community level. Local communities in the targeted CAMPFIRE Wildlife Conservancies (CWCs) of Mbire, Muzarabani and Hurungwe are being supported with pilot projects on Community Based Wildlife Management (CBWM), Sustainable Forest Management (SFM), Sustainable Land Management (SLM), Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC) resolution, fire management and sustainable alternative sources of income and energy interventions. Targeted community-based woodland restoration and management is also being supported in the selected CWCs to promote carbon sequestration and sustainable development initiatives in the project area. Local communities in the CWCs are being provided with alternative sources of energy and energy-saving technologies to decrease their dependence on indigenous firewood for household and agricultural use (firewood plantations and energy-efficient tobacco curing barns).
Written by Tafadzwa Dhlakama, UNDP