Economic Governance Watch 03/2022 - Auditor-General's Report on Wetlands

ECONOMIC GOVERNANCE WATCH 3/2022

[20th April 2022]

Zimbabwe loses wetlands as EMA dithers

The Auditor-General’s report on the protection of wetlands was tabled last year in the National Assembly by the Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality.  One hard copy was tabled and there was considerable delay in being able to obtain other hard copies or soft copies.  The report can be accessed on the Veritas website [link];  it has not yet been debated by the House.

The report is of an audit conducted by the Auditor-General to assess whether the protection of wetlands by the Environmental Management Agency was being done efficiently and effectively.  The audit covered the period from the beginning of 2014 to the end of July 2019 and was carried out in five of Zimbabwe’s ten provinces, namely Harare, Mashonaland West, Masvingo, Midlands, Bulawayo and Matabeleland North.

The report shows that Zimbabwe is fast losing its wetlands due to a number of factors:  governance issues, including inadequate enforcement of orders;  pollution by untreated effluent;  cultivation;  unplanned building construction;  and mining.

Importance of Wetlands

The report contains the following definition of “wetland”, taken from the Environmental Management Act:

“Any area of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, and includes riparian land adjacent to the wetland.”

As the report explains, wetlands are important for water storage.  They act as natural earth sponges and are sources of water for all rivers and streams.  They soak up rain slowly and recharge ground water, rivers and streams, regulating water quality through natural filtration.  They also provide habitats for plants and animals that live in semi-aquatic conditions.  Destruction of wetlands causes flooding, shortages of underground water and loss of plants and animals that live in semi-aquatic conditions.

Legal Protection of Wetlands

Wetlands and the environment generally are given a great deal of legal protection, at least in theory.

The Constitution

Section 73 of the Constitution gives everyone the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being, and also the right to have the environment protected for the benefit or present and future generations.

The Environmental Management Act

Wetlands are protected in at least two ways under the Environmental Management Act (which we shall refer to as “the Act” in this bulletin):

Section 97, as read with the First Schedule, prohibits the draining of wetlands except in accordance with a certificate issued by the Director-General of the Environmental Management Agency following an environmental impact assessment report.  Anyone who drains a wetland without such a certificate is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of level 12 (currently ZW$200 000) or five years’ imprisonment or both.

Section 113 prohibits anyone from reclaiming, draining or disturbing wetlands without the express written authorisation of the Environmental Management Agency, given in consultation with the Minister responsible for water resources.  Anyone who does so without such authorisation is guilty of an offence punishable by fine of level 8 (currently ZW$50 000) or two years’ imprisonment or both.

In theory at least, therefore, the Act gives wetlands stringent protection.

There are two bodies responsible for implementing the Act:

1.   The National Environmental Council, which consists of representatives of a wide range of interest groups – Ministries, universities, business and non-governmental organisations – who are appointed by the Minister of Environment, Tourism and Hospitality.  The Council’s main functions are to advise on environmental policy, national goals and priorities and to give directions about enforcing the Act.

2.   The Environmental Management Agency [EMA], which is governed by a board consisting mostly of environmental experts appointed by the Minister.  The Agency’s functions are to formulate environmental quality standards and “to assist and participate in any matter pertaining to the management of the environment”.

There is no clear division of functions between the Council and the Agency, but it seems that the Council is supposed to deal mainly with policy formulation while the Agency concentrates on day-to-day administration of the Act.  In any event, according to the Auditor-General’s report, the Council has not met since 2013 so any division of responsibilities between it and the Agency is academic.

The Ramsar Convention

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat is usually known as the Ramsar Convention after the city in Iran where it was signed in 1971.  It can be accessed on the Veritas website [link].

Parties to the Convention are supposed to designate wetlands which are of particular ecological importance, and these wetlands are then included in an international list.  Parties undertake to preserve and promote the conservation of their listed wetlands as well as all other wetlands within their territories.

Zimbabwe became a party to the Convention in May 2013 and has designated seven wetlands totalling 453 828 hectares in extent for inclusion in the list.  They are:

Victoria Falls

Driefontein Grasslands

Middle Zambezi/Mana Pools

Lake Chivero

Monavale Vlei (Harare)

Chinhoyi Caves

Cleveland Dam.

In terms of section 132 of the Environmental Management Act, the Minister is supposed to publish in the Gazette the provisions of all international environmental treaties and instruments to which Zimbabwe is a party.  He has not yet published the Ramsar Convention in the Gazette.

Sustainable Development Goals

Zimbabwe has signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals, approved by the UN General Assembly in 2015 with the goal of ending poverty by 2030.  SDG 15.1 calls on member States:

By 2020, [to] ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular … wetlands, …, in line with obligations under international agreements.”

Despite all this, the Auditor-General found widespread degradation of wetlands in the provinces covered by her audit.

Summary of Auditor-General’s Findings

As we said earlier, the Auditor-General found that the main drivers of wetland degradation in Zimbabwe were governance issues, pollution by untreated effluent, wetland cultivation and prescribed projects (i.e. activities such as construction and mining, which require an environmental impact assessment before they can be permitted).  We shall deal with each of these in turn.

Governance Issues

The audit revealed weak governance in the protection of the environment, particularly wetlands:

The National Environmental Council had not met since 2013.

As a consequence, State of the Environment Reports were not being prepared and presented to Parliament every five years as required by sec 5(1)(c) of the Act.  Hence the nation and key stakeholders were not able to track the extent of the destruction of the environment over a period of time.

Local authorities were not preparing and enforcing local environmental action plans [LEAP plans] as they are required to do by section 95 of the Act.  These plans, which are supposed to be reviewed, evaluated and approved by the EMA, should state how local authorities will manage and protect the environment, including wetlands, within their areas.  The audit revealed:

“From the 74 local authorities assessed by EMA in 2018, 36 had LEAP documents.  However, out of the 36 local authorities that developed the plans, only 11 were implementing them while the remaining 25 did not implement or adhere to the plans.  No action was taken by EMA to ensure that all local authorities produce and implement LEAPs.”

Part of the problem here was that only 12 out of the 74 local authorities had environmental committees with even one member who possessed environmental qualifications or experience.

The EMA was not enforcing orders it issued to developers who were polluting wetlands, and the agency failed to make follow-ups to ensure that corrective action had been taken.  During the period covered by the report 109 orders were issued but not enforced.

The EMA had no power to demolish structures built illegally on wetlands.  That power is vested in local authorities, which were often complicit in allowing the structures to be built.

Apart from the EMA, other law enforcement agencies were providing only limited support for the protection of wetlands.

Pollution by untreated effluent

The report noted that in all the five provinces audited, wetlands were being polluted by untreated effluent from local authorities, individuals, mining operations and institutions.  Out of 29 sewer systems that were inspected, 23 were not functioning as intended;  only five out of 18 treatment plants were functioning, one out of six pumping stations were functioning, three manholes were not functioning and two sites had burst sewage pipes.  The audit also noted that six individuals, 13 mining companies and 24 institutions were discharging untreated effluent into wetlands.

Urban surface water was most affected by raw sewage discharges from local authorities, the worst affected water bodies being:

Marimba, Mukuvisi and Nyatsime rivers in Harare,

Mazai, Matshemhlope and Umguza rivers in Bulawayo,

Gweru river in Gweru,

Kalope stream in Hwange, and

Ruzawi river in Marondera.

The Auditor-General noted that fines levied against local authorities were small (ranging from ZW$200 to ZW$5 000) and usually not paid.

Other pollution

Wetlands were also affected by pollution from industrial and other sources.  The Auditor-General found that developers were not submitting quarterly monitoring reports indicating the level and class of effluent they were discharging into wetlands.  Out of 43 developers sampled, only 10 were complying, six were partially complying and the remaining 27 were not complying at all.  This non-compliance was due to inadequate enforcement by the EMA, and it meant that the agency was not able to determine the extent of pollution of wetlands by developers.

Wetland Cultivation

As noted earlier, section 113 of the Environmental Management Act prohibits anyone from “disturbing” wetlands without the written authority of the EMA;  persons who do so are liable to a fine of up to ZW$50 000 or two years’ imprisonment.  In addition, regulations under the Act (SI 7 of 2007) prohibit the cultivation of wetlands without a licence from the EMA and a favourable environmental impact assessment;  defaulters are liable to a fine of up to level 14 (ZW$500 000) or a year’s imprisonment or both.

Despite these provisions, the Auditor-General noted that wetlands, including those protected by the Ramsar Convention, were being destroyed by illegal cultivation in all the five provinces covered by her report.  She said:

Driefontein, Cleveland and Monavale wetlands, which are Ramsar designated sites, were at threat from cultivation activities.  The Agency was not tracking the hectares affected by cultivation especially in the Ramsar designated wetlands.  Continued degradation of wetlands from cultivation activities was attributed to non-issuance and non-enforcement of orders by EMA in the provinces that I visited.”

She found that the EMA was not tracking the hectares affected by cultivation, especially in the Ramsar wetlands.

Prescribed Projects

As explained earlier, prescribed projects are activities such as construction and mining that require environmental impact assessments before they can be permitted.

The report noted that housing developments were taking place in wetland areas around the country, caused by rural to urban migration and land grabbing by co-operatives and “land barons”.  It further noted that Harare province had the most numbers of the illegal developments in wetlands.  The Auditor-General said:

“The most affected wetlands were Monavale, a Ramsar designated wetland, Duri river in Chitungwiza, Budiriro, Belvedere wetlands and Ascot wetland in Gweru.”

A total of 3 716,64 hectares of Harare Wetlands had been affected by construction.  This translates to 16 per cent of the total wetland area in Harare.

Wetlands were also affected by mining.  The report found that mining activities were more pronounced in Midlands, Mashonaland West and Matabeleland North Provinces.  Some mining projects were breaching the conditions of their environmental impact assessment (EIA) certificates.  The effects of mineral extraction on wetlands were drainage of wetland areas, filling of wetlands with spoil, widening of stream beds, alteration of stream courses through diversion and impoundment, increased silt load and turbidity, as well as decrease in both light penetration and wetland habitat diversity.

The Auditor-General’s Recommendations

The Auditor-General put forward several recommendations to improve the protection of wetlands:

The National Environmental Council should become operational and co-ordinate approaches to environmental issues so that strategic decisions can be taken at national level.

State of the Environment Reports should be produced and tabled in Parliament every five years as required by the Act.

The EMA should ensure that local authorities produce and implement Local Environment Action Plans (LEAPs).  Local authorities need funding so that they retain employees with environmental expertise.

Through its parent Ministry the EMA should engage key stakeholders on wetlands protection.

The law should be amended to give the EMA power to enforce its orders.

There should be enhanced environmental inspections and enforcement of orders issued.

The EMA should conduct regular environmental audits of projects requiring environmental impact assessments.

The EMA should ensure that developers submit quarterly monitoring reports.  This will help the EMA to monitor the quality and quantity of effluent discharged by developers.

Environmental laws and regulations should be revised to come up with a clear position on overall responsibilities.  Stringent deterrent measures should be put in place to reduce cases of repeat offenders.  The environment needs to be preserved for the current and future generations.

Conclusion

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words.  The Auditor-General’s report has a picture on its cover showing a pipe spewing untreated sewage into a burnt-out, rubble-strewn wetland.  That picture aptly summarises what is going wrong.

It is clear from the report that the EMA has not been carrying out its statutory function of protecting our environment and, as a result, Zimbabwe is losing a significant part of its wetlands every year.  It is to be hoped that Parliament gets round to debating the report soon and that Government implements the Auditor-General’s recommendations, while there are still any wetlands left in Zimbabwe.

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2022