The political Tsunami that swept through Zimbabwe in the past three weeks, sending huge shocks across Africa, climaxed on November 24, 2017, with the swearing in of the embattled former Vice President, Mr. Emmerson Mnangagwa as President, in place of the deposed Robert Mugabe who had ruled the South African country for thirty seven long years. This sudden, seamless transition has rekindled some hope in the land of Victoria Falls. But would this hope translate to anything concrete? Would the new government be any different? Can the new government lead Zimbabwe into a new era of peace, of prosperity, of environmental sustainability? This article highlights five major environmental challenges in Zimbabwe that the new Government must help find viable, sustainable solutions to. How the new government responds to these challenges will determine its success or otherwise in office!
Mugabe out, Mnangagwa in, but still, environmental challenges in Zimbabwe present new opportunities
As news of Mugabe’s resignation broke, spontaneous cheers broke the roof. From Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital and biggest city, to Bulawayo, its second biggest city, Zimbabweans trooped to the street to celebrate a new dawn. So much for a 37 year reign that ended ignobly! But polity watchers have issued a note of warning: “The sun may have finally set on the Mugabe era, it would be foolhardy to think that all is Uhuru yet.”
Serious challenges, across all various sectors, continue to stare Zimbabwe in the face; a collapsed economy, soaring hyperinflation, divisions and internal strife, poor institutional governance structures, throngs of environmental challenges etc. Suffice to say how the country under the new government responds to meet these challenges will determine, in the years ahead, its recoveries and successes, or its regrets from more missed opportunities! Below, we look at five major environmental challenges in Zimbabwe that must be national priorities for the new Mnangagwa-led government.
Five major environmental challenges in Zimbabwe
Lack of access to clean, portable water
Access to clean, portable water is certainly one of the most serious environmental challenges in Zimbabwe.
Geography tells us that less than 10% of Africa’s rainfall is available as surface water, making it “one of the lowest conversion ratios in the world”. The situation is more complicated in Zimbabwe, a semi-arid country, where groundwater resources are equally limited and with characteristic fluctuating rainfalls, leading to acute water shortages in parts of the country. Over the past years, continuous population growth, urbanization and industrialization have mounted increased pressures on available, limited water resources.
These scenarios result in over-extraction, highest bidder takes all and other intense manifestations of unhealthy competitions and unequal social distributions. Coupled with these is the fact that the wastewater treatment plants in Harare are characterised by obsolete infrastructure and operate at below 50% of installed capacity. Harare alone now has an estimated four million people. With acute water shortages, Zimbabweans in Harare and other cities resort to unwholesome means, including but not limited to, polluted and unsafe sources of water, considerably increasing the risk of infections and other water-borne diseases. Without quick interventions to fix the country ailing infrastructural facilities, including provision of clean portable water for all Zimbabweans, the situation will only get worse.
Loss of biodiversity
Zimbabwe boasts of one of the richest biodiversity collections in Africa and is a leading destination for tourists. For many years, it also boasted of well-maintained forest reserves, parks, wildlife and various initiatives that encouraged conservation. But in the past few years, all that seemed to have changed. This follows a trend similar to African countries’ and other parts of the world.
According to bartleby.com, “In 2001, nine of the nation’s mammal species and nine bird species were endangered, as well as 73 types of plants.” More than half of black rhinoceroses (an endangered species) in the world are in Zimbabwe, plus, other rare or threatened species such as the cape vulture, ant eater, black-cheeked lovebird, leopard, brown hyena, pangolin etc. Over the years, as the ability of public officials to enforce public order got considerably watered down, a number of highly placed Zimbabweans with political connections engaged in organized hunting and poaching to earn scarce foreign currency and for commercial bush meat. In one national park alone, about 100 elephants were said to have died from cyanide poisoning.
As loss of biodiversity as also tends to affect food security, the need to improve biodiversity conservation in Zimbabwe, a serious environmental challenge in Zimbabwe, has never been higher! But one thing is clear; Zimbabwe is rich in natural resources and has huge potential to translate these into concrete economic development, provided these resources are sustainably harnessed.
As Zimbabwe’s middle class shrank over the past years under Mugabe’s failing watch, the number of Zimbabweans who wallowed in poverty increased. More Zimbabweans resorted to firewood for cooking- more trees and forestlands were lot. The increasing population also meant the need for more agricultural lands for food cultivation, timber logging for wood for construction etc. The immediate environment bore the brunt of the economic disaster, urban sprawl and overwhelmed social infrastructure.
At some point in the last two decades in Zimbabwe, deforestation was reported to have progressed at about 70,000–100,000 ha per year. Specifically, reports say between 2000 and 2008, it is estimated that it lost 100 000 and 320 000 hectares of forest cover per year. To put it in proper perspective, Zimbabwe has lost about 1.5% of its forestland; justifying a place for deforestation as one of the major environmental challenges in Zimbabwe.
In the past decade, Zimbabwe endured one of the world’s worst hyperinflation rates. As poverty level increased, forest resources tended to suffer more as poor people resorted to felling trees for firewood, charcoal etc. Should things continue at this rate, Zimbabwe could, decades from now, lose more considerable portions of its forest resources, except creative ways of arresting deforestation are adopted.
Poor waste management and other worsening cases of environmental pollution
One of the reoccurring issues that every city has to contend with is municipal waste management. As a city experiences population growth, industrialization and urbanization, the amount of wastes generated by its residents also tend to increase, stretching existing waste management facilities. But this problem takes on an extra meaning in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, where extreme cash crunch, lack of much needed investments in waste management systems and other factors have resulted in a situation where waste generation considerably outpaces the scope of what of city authorities can effectively manage.
Due to worsening inefficient waste collection by authorities and non-existent services in “unreached” areas, particularly low-income areas, a good junk of Zimbabwe’s 0.5 million tons of solid wastes per year ends up in the environment. Thus, indiscriminate dumping of wastes and illegal waste dumps, open burning and other unwholesome environmental practices have been on the increase, with huge implications for public health.
According to reports, waste collection rates in Zimbabwe have consistently slumped, sometimes by more than 70% in a number of cities leading to over 80% increase in volume of potentially hazardous wastes deposited at illegal dumpsites; the consequences for the public have been damning. With steady surges in outbreaks of diseases like dysentery, cholera, diarrhea etc., reports say Harare and other Zimbabwean cities recorded an average of 1,000 cases per day between 2005 and 2009, resulting in over 3,000 deaths!
Also of concern is the reduction in air quality due to pollution from the industrial sector, vehicular emissions, smoke from burning of firewood, water pollution from mining of mineral ores and agricultural practices and other sources. With one of the world’s worst cases of contamination by DDT and its derivatives in agricultural products (DDT is a banned pesticides reported to be carcinogenic), Zimbabwe stands at a precipice of environmental disaster.
The question is no longer “Will climate change affect Zimbabwe?” Today, with the effects of climate change so clearly evident across Zimbabwe, the pressing questions are, “To what extent would climate change affect Zimbabwe?”, “How would Zimbabwe mitigate the effects of climate change?”
As climate change bites harder, environmental challenges in Zimbabwe worsen, however, the vulnerable are the most hit. Every sector of Zimbabwe now bears the brunt of climate change. From power generation to agriculture, tourism, health, transport etc. Average temperatures in Zimbabwe are higher; residents hardly remember a hotter or colder time. These days, rain is harder to come by. In fact, 2015-2016 was one of the driest and hottest period in many parts of the world, including Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, riverbanks are not as full as they used to be; lakes and river are rescinding, making fishing more difficult. Farming also is highly impacted. Invariably, a lower water table means less water available to plants and poorer harvests.
Electricity in Zimbabwe is largely hydropower. However, over the past years, Zimbabwe’s main lake, Lake Kariba, has witnessed a nearly 30% drop in water level. As water level drops, the amount of electricity also drops. Hence, many parts of Zimbabwe are in darkness. With the aforementioned impacts of climate change in Zimbabwe, it is evident Zimbabwe must take its commitments to the Paris Agreement seriously.
These critical environmental challenges in Zimbabwe and others may look daunting but they are not insurmountable. But like I asked in the opening paragraph of this article, “Would the found new hope in the new government in Zimbabwe translate to anything concrete? Would the new government be any different? Can the new government lead Zimbabwe into a new era of peace, of prosperity, of environmental sustainability?” The next few months and years would tell.
- Written by: Idowu KUNLERE
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