HARARE // From supporting water and wildlife-based tourism in eight countries and thriving agriculture along its banks to providing points for hydroelectrical power generation, the Zambezi River is the most shared natural resource in southern Africa. But it is in danger from the ravages of climate change, a report released in September warns.
"The Zambezi River Basin, like the rest of Southern Africa, is facing serious impacts of climate change," says the report by Harare-based Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC). The 1.4 million square kilometre basin covers parts of Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe where it supports 40 million people. The report pointed out that the basin is rich in human, social, political, economic, natural and ecological diversity and has high potential for agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism, wildlife and hydroelectric power generation.
It offers a wide range of tourist attractions such as the Victoria Falls and has at least five wildlife parks on its banks. Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border and in Mozambique, respectively, offer two of the region's largest hydroelectric power plants, which light up most of southern Africa. The report says climate change is damaging wildlife habitats and the flow of the Zambezi, which could hamper energy generation and the splendour of the Victoria Falls, also known as Mosi-Oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders).
Edline Tauya, a SARDC researcher, said climate change had already reduced river flow of Africa's longest river, which in turn had lowered the smoking sight of the Victoria Falls, making it less attractive. "Regional tourism will be affected greatly, because the basin drives that industry," she said. Kenneth Msibi, a water policy and strategy expert for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), told a Zambezi Basin stakeholders' meeting in Malawi last November that the Zambezi was the worst-affected basin in the world.
Frequent floods and intense droughts are expected to become more frequent, he said. The SADC report forecasts an increase in the occurrence of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever because of changes in temperature and rainfall patterns induced by climate change. The changed weather patterns could also negatively impact on food production and security because of droughts, desertification, flooding and dwindling rains.
"By 2100, changes in temperature and precipitation could alter the geographical distribution of malaria in the basin, with areas of dense human population becoming suitable for transmission. Occurrences of water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery, while common to the Zambezi River Basin, may also increase due to climate change," the report says. Emmanuel Fundira, a local tourism operator, said it was regrettable that countries in the developed world are the biggest contributors to climate change, yet Africa, the smallest contributor to that phenomenon, is the worst affected.
"What we have to do is to adapt to the impact of climate change," he said. "We must emphasise on recovering the environment, not simply to extract value from it." He said during a recent visit by a high-level delegation from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, local operators asked for technical assistance from the global body, to establish green zones - areas where environmental preservation shares centre stage with the quest for profit. "The local tourism sector has broadened its rating system for hotels and lodges beyond service to guests and facilities," said Mr Fundira, also president of the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism.
"Walk into any lodge or hotel, you will find that in addition to the traditional stars we were used to, you will see green stars, which rate each establishment's programmes for ecological conservation. It is becoming a global practice anyway, whereby for instance, if a tour operator is bidding for international financial assistance, his or her application is considered, among other factors, against the carbon credits the operator has.
"The more carbon credits, the more likely you are to get the funding. We want to try as much as we can to adapt to the changing environment, as well as raise our programmes to mitigate climate change." email@example.com