On February 2, Zimbabwe joined global efforts to mark World Wetlands Day with the theme, “Wetlands and Biodiversity.” This comes at a time when environmental groups have raised concerns about the government’s poor protection of wetlands in the country, particularly in the capital, Harare, which faces a major water crisis. More than half of the city’s 4.5 million residents are without access to clean water and are at risk of waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid.
Wetlands are important for several reasons. They filter water by breaking down harmful pollutants including chemicals, separate them from the water, and use the chemicals as fertilizer for vegetation growing on the wetland. They are also natural sewage systems, filtering out waste and running clean water into rivers.
Since May 2013, Zimbabwe has been a party to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which seeks to protect and preserve wetlands. Local laws, including the 2006 Environmental Management Act and the Environmental Assessment and Ecosystem Protection Regulations of 2007, provide for the protection of wetlands. But not enough is being done to educate citizens, policymakers, and local and national government authorities on the importance of wetlands and on strengthening mechanisms for their protection. According to the local environmental group Harare Wetlands Trust, lack of appreciation of the importance of wetlands, coupled with poor urban planning and insufficient regulation, has resulted in the destruction of Harare’s wetlands through mostly illegal construction on wetlands that feed into Lake Chivero, Harare’s only water source. Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Mangaliso Ndlovu, last week complained that illegal housing construction projects on the wetlands in Harare and Chitungwiza had turned the wetlands into “concrete jungles.”
For Zimbabwe to fulfill its obligation to the right to clean water, which impacts the rights to health and life, the government needs to take urgent action to protect wetlands and stop the ongoing and unprecedented degradation putting them at serious risk.