Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency (Ema) and Harare City Council are heading for a clash with environmentalists after approving construction of a mosque on wetlands.
The mosque, now at roof level, is opposite Long Cheng Plaza mall whose construction on the same wetland belt sparked protests by environmentalists a few years ago.
At the time, Ema claimed they were not consulted.
The agency has this time around admitted issuing an environmental impact assessment certificate, clearing the way for the church.
Harare City Council has also reportedly allocated several commercial stands on the same land.
Responding to questions from ZTN News, Ema Harare Provincial Environment Manager Robson Mavondo said, “An Environmental Impact Assessment study was conducted, and it revealed that it was a wetland; that is wet for relatively short and infrequent periods.
“So an EIA certificate for a mosque was issued in 2019 on condition that the church was going to be on a suspended foundation to minimise disturbances on the ground water movement.”
Environmental lawyer and Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association legal officer Richard Ncube quipped: “It’s an issue of whether the consultant hired will be biased or not. I think there is a perceived conflict of interest on the part of consultants offering services that can affect the project of the person who is paying them. The issue of impartiality can be a problem.
“But at the end of the day, the final decision rests with Ema, and it is, therefore, important for Ema to critically assess the report that is submitted to them. Enforcement of legislation should be strengthened to protect the environment. The EIA exercise should also be more transparent, with reports submitted after the process being accessible to the public.”
Harare Wetlands Trust project manager Selestino Chari said communities should be involved in environmental impact assessment.
“We are not happy with the EIA process. It needs to be reviewed and residents need to be consulted,” he said.
“We don’t have a wetlands map that clearly states where ecological sensitive areas are placed. We are using the discretion of individuals. We need the process of gazetting a wetlands map to be concluded as a matter of urgency.”
Environmental history academic Professor Muchaparara Musemwa said the land in question “is a nationally-recognised wetland and should be protected”.
“Unless the remainder of the space that was the wetland has totally been transformed to be devoid of any wetland traces, then surely efforts should have been made to preserve what little wetland life is left.”
The Environmental Management Act (20:27) defines wetlands as “Areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including riparian land adjacent to the wetland”.
It prohibits development on such lands.
Zimbabwe is signatory to the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that commits member countries to wetland conservation.
About 79 percent of Zimbabwe’s 1 271 wetlands have been tampered with and are severely to moderately degraded.
Harare and Chitungwiza hold the worst records of wetland destruction, countrywide.
Information from Ema indicates that the EIA process begins with submission of an environmental prospectus to the agency. This is the document that introduces the project to Ema.
Ema then reviews the document to determine whether the project requires an EIA before commencement. The Environmental Management Act lists projects that should have an EIA certificate and guides the process.
In the event that the agency decided an EIA is required, the land developer will hire an EIA team to conduct the exercise. This team, which is paid by the land developer, will produce a report and submit it to Ema for review.
Ema will approve the project if satisfied with the report.
The agency launched a mapping exercise last year that is yet to be completed.
Apart from being biodiversity hotspots, wetlands are also water sources and natural filters of ground water.
Harare, which is infamous for its filthy tap water generally due to lack of a raw water source, has over 60 percent of its wetlands in severe conditions. Experts have warned that the city could run dry in the next few years if nothing is done to protect wetlands, which are likely going to be the only source of freshwater during the dry season as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change.
Combined Harare Residents Association programmes officer Rueben Akili said: “We have been part of this wetland campaign and taking the agenda to the communities. If construction is undertaken on a wetland which is the source of all water bodies, it means we are not going to have water problems.”
Ema says it is doing everything possible to protect wetlands but its major challenge is that “the Harare City Council keeps on parcelling out wetlands to land developers”.
Council spokesperson Mr Michael Chideme hit back at Ema.
“I can’t comment on (the mosque) when I’m not on the ground to see that it is really on a wetland. But Ema gives authority for construction through the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which it approves. I don’t know why some people are in the habit of throwing stones.
“We do not allocate projects on wetlands. What happens is people invade wetlands. Council is for the preservation of wetlands because we know their value. These invaders don’t wait for permission. That’s why we often demolish such structures and when we do that, people complain.”
This story is published under the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) Investigative Journalism Fund with support from the European Union (EU).