Sharing Lessons Learned Protects the World's Great Rivers

ARLINGTON, Virginia, April 18, 2007 (ENS) - Flowing through eight countries of southern Africa, the Zambezi River faces competing demands for water from agriculture, power generation, industrial and domestic users as well as wildlife and tourism. Rivers in China, Brazil and the United States face similar demands despite their differing geography, so river managers are avoiding mistakes by sharing lessons learned through the Nature Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership.

The fourth largest river in Africa, the Zambezi arises on the Central African Plateau in the Kalene Hills of northwestern Zambia and winds 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) before it widens into a delta in Mozambique and pours into the Indian Ocean.

The river basin supports a population of more than 42 million people and many endangered wildlife species. The river creates the largest sheet of falling water in the world at Victoria Falls, shared by Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The Zambezi River flows over a precipice to form Victoria Falls. (Photo courtesy Nature Conservancy)
Rapid human settlement, incompatible agricultural practices, water pollution, alteration of natural flooding and flow patterns, poaching, unmanaged fire, unsustainable fishing, deforestation, invasive vegetation and the introduction of non-native fish from aquaculture operations, have all taken a toll on the Zambezi's ecological health.

To help manage and protect the Zambezi, the African Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy in March began working together under the umbrella of the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership.

"The Nature Conservancy as an organization has not had a presence in Africa," Michael Reuter, director of the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership told ENS. "As we looked at our global conservation mission and areas where we needed to begin investing, we concluded that Africa is really important for biodiversity and human livelihoods."

With this partnership, the conservationists are bringing effective practices from other river systems around the world to Africa to inform management of the Zambezi.

In addition to the Zambezi, the Great Rivers Partnership is working to advance conservation of the Yangtze River in China, the Paraguay and Parana rivers in Brazil and the Mississippi River in the United States.

Reuter said that the Nature Conservancy invited 10 members of Zambezi River Authority to attend the Second Yangtze Forum that concluded Tuesday in Changsha, China.


Participants at the Second Yangtze Forum in Changsha, China April 15-17. (Photo courtesy Yangtze Forum)
"We are cosponsoring the Yangtze River Forum, a bi-annual event, with the government of China and a host of NGO and governmental partners, to share lessons learned among these rivers," Reuter said.

The first annual health report on the Yangtze River, released at the Forum Tuesday, shows that billions of tons of waste dumped into river are taking a massive toll on its aquatic life. The Yangtze River Conservation and Development Report 2007 says that China's longest waterway is suffering from natural disasters, deterioration of water quality and loss of biodiversity.

Last year, more than 26 billion tons of wastewater was pumped into the Yangtze, which runs through 11 provinces and municipalities.


The polluted Yangtze River at Fuling, a town at the confluence of the Yangtze and Wu rivers. (Photo courtesy Probe International)
China's first comprehensive study of the river said that about one-tenth of the 6,380 kilometer (3,964 miles) main stream is in critical condition.

Experts who wrote the report said the river is "irreversibly" damaged.

Pollution, damming and heavy traffic have brought rare Yangtze species such as the white-flag dolphin to the verge of extinction and common species such as the carp are gasping for survival, the report said.

The Zambezi River is not yet subject to such overuse and pollution, and African Wildlife Foundation staffer Jimmiel Mandima is determined to ensure that the African River remains healthier.

"Maintaining the Zambezi River's role as a functional lifeline from an economic and ecological standpoint is the overall vision for this initiative," said Jimmiel Mandima, director for the African Wildlife Foundation's Zambezi Heartland program.

"Cross-site exchanges and lessons learned from other great rivers should come to bear and contribute to the formulation of an appropriate integrated water resources management strategy that fosters sustainable freshwater conservation," Mandima said.

"Drought has been a regional challenge especially in agricultural production, where there is a tendency for a growing population to create greater pressure on river systems, including the Zambezi," Mandima told ENS from Kariba, Zimbabwe, a Zambezi River town. "Water taking is controlled to some extent, but this needs to be expanded," he said.

A fisheries ecologist by profession, Mandima said, "We have been able to solicit the cooperation of different countries in a aquatic resources working group. These members join resource monitoring activities and with capacity building we expect these institutions to conduct monitoring of the river.

Elephants drink at a natural waterhole on the Zambezi River. (Photo by Craig Sholley courtesy African Wildlife Foundation)
Wildife is able to get the water they need from the Zambezi, says Mandima. The whole Zambezi basin has the "big five" animals of Africa - lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and the African cape buffalo - as well as a good number of aquatics like hippos, crocodiles and rich fish resources, Mandima says.

The Zambezi basin supports more than 250 species of fish such as the tigerfish and the great Vundu catfish. Hundreds of bird species inhabit the basin, including the snake eagle, African fish eagle and the Marabu stork. The Zambezi and its tributaries also provide habitat for zebras, monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, and monitor lizards.

The world's largest elephant population, close to 200,000 elepants strong, is found in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana where they rely on the Zambezi as a major lifeline.

Until recently the Zambezi River, with its tributaries, swamps and springs, has provided enough water for the elephant herds, but due to recurrent droughts in Zimbabwe, Mandima says wildlife authorities have had to supplement the river with artificial watering holes.


Baby elephant in the Zambezi (Photo courtesy AWF)
"There are intentions to do more of this in other countries to minimize congestions of elephants that can result in damage to other resources," he said.

There are two main sources of hydroelectric power on the river - the Kariba Dam, which provides power to Zambia and Zimbabwe and the Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique which provides power to South Africa. There is also a smaller power station at Victoria Falls.

Mandima says plans to build more dams are still on the drawing board, although the Southern Africa Power Pool recognizes a growing deficit in power as compared to development and industrialization planned for the Zambezi Basin.

The government of Mozambique says it plans to build more dams to avert future flooding of the Zambezi River like the floods that devastated the country in February, affecting more than 87,000 people. Despite the destruction, local non-governmental organizations have criticized the government for its dam plans, claiming the dams would displace thousands of people and flood fertile food producing areas.

In its case study of the Kariba Dam in 2000, the World Commission on Dams found that the downstream impacts extend all the way to the Indian Ocean.


One of the first large dams in Africa, the Kariba dam on the Zambezi River was built in 1959. (Photo by Annie Bungeroth courtesy Oxfam)
The seasonal high and low floods do not occur as they did before Kariba, the Commission said. "The delta floodplain ecology has been negatively affected. Shrimp catches have decreased, floodplains have been invaded by upland vegetation because of the absence of annual flooding, mangrove are dying off because of poor flooding of coastal areas, productivity of artesianal fisheries in the delta area has decreased, and wildlife populations in the delta have been negatively impacted."

Mandima says more dams would impact the flow regime of the Zambezi, but from the shared perspective anything that happens damming the Zambezi River requires the endorsement of all eight countries, it requires agreement at the regional economic secretariat level, to the extent that by the time any dam is funded, he said, the consequences will be well understood.


The Zambezi River Basin is shown in white on this map of southern Africa. (Map courtesy Wikimedia, created from public domain maps at the University of Texas.)
"Floods on the Zambezi River tend to be long-lasting, and beneficial when they spread over large flood plains," says Reuter. "When we have these dams and flow alterations, productivity declines steeply. The Conservancy will work with the African Wildlife Foundation and the Zambezi River Authority and others to improve these outcomes."

The African Wildlife Foundation's participation in the Great Rivers Partnership will provide technical and financial support to help river stakeholders obtain the latest scientific information on which to base decisions, says Reuter.

"Jimmiel lacks good baseline information on the increase and decrease of species and impacts on the river," he said. "One of the things we felt is really important is that Great Rivers Partnership will work with the African Wildlife Foundation and local authorities to provide that baseline information."

"We can share information among these river systems so we don't have to make the same mistakes."

The Nature Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership is online at: