By Kumbirai Mafunda
On World Wetlands Day, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) calls upon policymakers, local and central government to take concerted and coordinated efforts to develop and implement action plans to stop the ongoing degradation of wetlands and protect, preserve and restore them.
World Wetlands Day, which is commemorated every year on 2 February, aims to raise global awareness on the vital importance of wetlands for human beings, flora and fauna, and our planet as a whole.
World Wetlands Day is also an occasion to commemorate the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands, the “Ramsar Convention” on 2 February 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar. The Ramsar Convention seeks to protect and preserve wetlands. Zimbabwe is a party to this Convention and in terms which has designated 7 ‘Ramsar sites’ of wetlands of international importance.
In 2021, World Wetlands Day is being commemorated under the theme “Wetlands and Water”, which highlights the need to protect and restore wetlands since they are a significant source of fresh water, at a time when the world is facing a growing shortage of freshwater.
This day is an opportunity for people around the world, including Zimbabwe, to reflect on how water and wetlands are connected in an inseparable co-existence which is important to life and the health of the planet and highlight the detrimental effects of the destruction of wetlands on the quality of life for humans, other forms of life and the environment.
Wetlands are critical in the water cycle, providing freshwater for many people around the world. Wetlands absorb water throughout the rainy season, preventing flooding and runoff carrying pollutants causing siltation of water sources. The wetlands store the water, replenish ground aquifers, and slowly release this water in the dry season into streams and river systems around cities until it finds its way into the major water sources supplying the cities.
Without wetlands, these water sources would quickly run dry in winter months and poor rainy seasons, causing major water shortages. Wetlands also act as natural filters for pollutants and provide safe drinking water as a result.
The water found in wetlands supports agriculture and aquaculture, thereby providing income and sustenance for millions of people across the globe.
In Zimbabwe, the loss of wetlands has been mainly caused by human interference and mismanagement. In particular, the drainage of wetlands to pave way for human settlements, industrial activity, and agriculture has caused wetlands to disappear rapidly.
Across the country, some local authorities and the so-called land barons ignore the need to protect wetlands by approving housing developments on wetlands despite the existence of many domestic and international laws against such conduct.
This has been disastrous for some residents, as their houses have been flooded and destroyed with some local authorities having the temerity of blaming residents for constructing houses on wetlands rather than providing progressive solutions.
For several years, ZLHR and its partners have consistently challenged such conduct by local authorities, non-state actors, and other government departments and ministries in the courts. Many notable successes have been recorded in our bid to preserve and protect wetlands.
The protection and restoration of wetlands guarantee the right to water. Section 77 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides that everyone has the right to safe, clean, and potable water. Section 74 provides for an environment that is not harmful.
The government must develop sustainable strategies for the protection and restoration of wetlands. This is a human rights issue that requires a human rights-based solution.
To protect and restore wetlands and secure the availability of freshwater for present and future generations, ZLHR urges local and central government to;
o Stop destroying and start restoring wetlands;
o Commit to the maintenance of the ecological character of wetlands that are considered to be Wetlands of International Importance or Ramsar Sites;
o Increase awareness about the importance of conserving wetlands through educational campaigns and media coverage;
o Immediately stop approving housing developments on wetlands;
o Establish an Environmental Tribunal to investigate violations of environmental laws and impose punitive action;
o Introduce a new Bill in Parliament governing wetlands and covering the problem of private individuals holding title deeds over wetlands;
o Treat wetlands solely as a water resource and legislative provisions protecting water resources;
o Domesticate the provisions of the Ramsar Convention and Convention on Biodiversity and incorporate them into Zimbabwe’s municipal law so as to uphold the obligations under international law to maintain Wetlands of International Importance.
On the other hand, the Network for Environmental Justice is calling for measures to address corrupt allocation of stands on wetlands in Harare. It said corruption is among factors leading to destruction of wetlands.
The organisation argued that diplomatic approaches have failed the fight against environmental protection.
“Protecting the environment implies fighting corruption and that requires a naming and shaming strategy.
“There is a need to walk the talk in as far as protecting wetlands is concerned. Enforcement of legislation is largely lacking and this is working against efforts to combat corruption which has proved to be costly for the environment.
“We are concerned that most wetland invaders are abusing office or riding on political connections and this must be exposed hence our strategy to name and shame corrupt individuals,” a spokesperson for the organisation said in a statement.