Confronting complex challenges in wetlands protection in Zimbabwe


Zimbabwe has not been spared from the destruction of wetlands primarily because of human activity.  In Zimbabwe wetlands cover 3% of the area (11 717.4km2).[1] Of the available wetlands a meagre 21% are stable while 18 % are severely degraded and 61% moderately degraded.[2] Zimbabwe has designated seven wetland sites of international importance covering 453,828 of land.[3] These wetland sites are protected in terms of section 73 of the Constitution, the Environmental Management Act and the Environmental Impact Assessment & Ecosystems Protection Regulations.  Zimbabwe is a signatory to the  Ramsar convention, which is an global inter- governmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.[4]  In line with the Ramsar Convention, section 2 of the Environmental Management Act defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, pea-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”.[5] The treaty obligates Zimbabwe to conserve wetlands that act as sponges, store water and act as flood controllers and carbon sinks that purify and supply water to water sources such as streams and dams. Despite commitments to the Ramsar convention , wetlands are disappearing from Zimbabwe as a result of human actions. Areas with wetlands are being turned into residential areas, with some now a hive of commercial activities where service stations, housing communities and other business related facilities have taken over. In Harare alone, there are 30 wetlands under threat from illegal settlements.[6] In Shurugwi district, wetlands were lost at an average rate of 0.6 % per annum.[7] It is in response to this destruction of wetlands that the Environmental Management Agency facilitated the development of a Draft Wetland Policy. The intended objectives of this policy are to:

  • Establish an effective and efficient institutional and legal framework for integrated management and wise use of wetlands which will provide an enabling environment for the participation of all stakeholders.
  • Enhance and maintain functions and values derived from wetlands in order to protect biological diversity and improve livelihood of Zimbabweans
  • Enhance capacity building within relevant institutions involved in management of wetlands.

While the policy objectives of the Wetlands Policy are very noble, the policy is confronted with a complex environment where very good policies are developed but not implemented. More so a reading of the context seems to indicate that the destruction of wetlands could be symptomatic of a deep-seated governance crisis in as far as proper and responsive administration of urban land is concerned. There is also evidence to suggest that successful implementation of existing policies and legislation aimed at sustainability and environmental protection in most sub-Saharan African countries have been hampered by factors such as growing food insecurity and climate change. Therefore notwithstanding this very noble policy, wetlands protection in Zimbabwe is confronted with complex governance challenges such as a poor housing policy,  changes in land use patterns, land corruption, increased pressure on land as a result of urbanization and urban farming. Realising these complex challenges confronting wetlands protections, the Africa Institute for Environmental Law (AIEL), a research arm of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) in collaboration with Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association convened a Policy Dialogue on the Draft Wetlands Policy. The primary objective of the dialogue was to come up with recommendations on how the Draft Wetlands Policy can be strengthened. The dialogue attracted stakeholders that include city developers, resident trusts, local authorities, civil society organisations and development partners.  

Participants insisted that the policy intention on wetlands protection should also be driven by the economic value of wetlands in the biodiversity economy. Participants suggested that there is a need for wetlands to be included in the Gross Domestic Product GDP computation. In 2014, Costanza et al. (2014) revised their 1997 estimations on the  contribution of wetlands (both inland and coastal) to the global monetary value of the ecosystem services of natural biomes, estimating that the 1997 value of wetland ecosystem services was a minimum of US$14.9 trillion per year (45% of the global total). Costanza et al. (2014) updated these figures based on improved biome area information and more comprehensive estimates of unit (per hectare) monetary values, largely from de Groot et al. (2012), with an estimate of the minimum monetary value of natural wetland ecosystem services, updated to 2011 values, of US$50.7 trillion per year, or 41% of the global total across all biomes. This economic value should be recognized in key economic blueprints such as the National Development Strategy.

Over and above this, it emerged that the need to protect and preserve wetland should also be driven by Zimbabwe ‘s commitment to curb climate change. Wetlands provide carbon storage facilities on earth as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that is then converted into other carbon compounds and cellulose.[8] Globally, wetlands are estimated to be storing 500-700 gigatons of carbon[9]. Wetlands regulate the quantity and timing of water discharge during droughts. During floods wetlands provide buffering and flood storage services, This therefore means the destruction of  wetlands will result in the release of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, three major heat-trapping gases. Despite their large potential for carbon mitigation, wetlands have not featured prominently within early climate commitments following the Paris Agreement. A preliminary analysis of Intended Nationally Determined Contribution INDCs and Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs) conducted in late 2019 suggests that 27 Parties were already including considerations of wetlands, swamps or peatlands as part of adaptation or mitigation activities within their LULUCF, water or ecosystem-related commitments. Zimbabwe being a signatory to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change needs to factor in wetlands protections in its NDCs. This give an opportunity for more actors beyond EMA to play a role in wetlands protection and preservation.

It emerged from the dialogue that notwithstanding the very important role local authorities should play in wetlands protections, some of these local authorities have little regard of environmental laws and at times development proceeds under their nose even if it violates the environmental laws. Effective wetlands protection in Zimbabwe require collaboration between  Local Authorities and EMA and residents.

Effective environmental protection and wetlands protection is also affected by lack of capacity on the part of court officials. The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) data shows that approximately 70% of magistrates and court officials did not undertake courses in environmental law. Of the six magistrates in Harare, only two undertook a module in environmental law. This lack of appreciation of environmental law is further compounded by the absence of environmental courts in Zimbabwe. Participants that include Harare Wetlands Trust noted that the lack of environmental courts in Zimbabwe that give urgency to environmental issues is a huge impediment towards environmental protections. This is one of the reasons why ZELA and EMA are pushing for the establishment of environmental courts. It was recommended that there is a need for AIEL, EMA and other key actors to ensure that there is improved knowledge and awareness among courts officials on environmental law, environmental protection and principles of sustainability.

A local developer and urban specialist, Dr Davison Muchadenyika highlighted that wetlands protection especially in the context of urban housing allocation challenges needs a very well-developed land information management system. This system will provide information on protected areas. He added that wetlands’ protection is also dependent on harmonization of policies. These policies are not limited to the housing policy, climate change policy and agricultural policy. It emerged from the dialogue that key to wetlands protection is the need for wetlands map which will inform land use plans by local authorities.

EMA’s Director of environmental management services, Steady Kangata, highlighted that the Agency is already working on the wetlands mapping. The AIEL Coordinator also noted how the Institute is keen on supporting this process.

The participants proposed that there is need for increased awareness on the issue of wetlands values especially on how these should be preserved. This is because some of the barriers to improved wetland management is that many stakeholders do not fully appreciate the value of the multiple services provided by wetland ecosystems, particularly with respect to water provision. Therefore, there is an urgent need to counter the widely prevailing misconception.

Harare Wetlands Trust made an emphasis on the need to ensure stakeholder engagement in wetland management.

“Management of wetlands needs to involve and accommodate views and needs of a wide range of stakeholders. Stakeholders need to be engaged in a transparent and equitable manner in pursuit of negotiated solutions that encompass a fair distribution of benefits and incentives. Similarly, rules on resource access and land use which shape social and conservation outcomes need to be equally clear, as a basis for good management; and there needs to be access to a fair justice system that allows for conflict resolution and recourse,” argued Julia Pierini.

[1] Draft Wetland Policy

[2] ibid



[5] Zimbabwe Environmental Management Act 2003


[7] Madebwe and Madebwe (2005)



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