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Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt

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Kids from a village close to Mongu getting water from a well in the Barotse floodplain in Western Zambia during dry season. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica on the 2023 WhyAfrica Road Trip

Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt  

The Zambezi Basin covers a massive chunk of land in Southern Africa and has become an area of critical importance to the world. How will African countries within this basin manage its inevitable development? 

By Leon Louw, owner of WhyAfrica and editor of the WhyAfrica magazine

During the recent WhyAfrica Africa Road Trip in July and August, we followed the Zambezi River for more than 1800km and in the process traversed large parts of the Zambezi Drainage Basin to find out just how critical this area has become to the world. The Zambezi is the fourth longest river in Africa, after the Nile, Congo, and Niger Rivers.

Enjoy sunrise over the Zambezi River at Katima Mulilo by clicking on the YouTube video link below:

 

The focus of our 2023 Road Trip through Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, and South Africa was to gather more information and data about mineral exploration and mining, agricultural developments, tourism potential, the state of infrastructure, water and environmental management, and the impact of climate change and development on the environment and communities inhabiting the Greater Zambezi Basin.

The Zambezi Basin covers a massive land area of more than 1,390,000km2. The drainage area encompasses large parts of Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, crossing regions of high population densities, conservation areas, regions of low population densities, important mining areas, agricultural regions, and buffer zones.

At times its river systems traverse areas where the human population is scant as in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, for example. This area protects large parts of the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, south-east Angola, south-west Zambia, the northern parts of Botswana and western Zambia. The basin also drains the Cameia National Park in Angola which covers a surface area of about 14,450km2 where the human population is relatively low.

Supplier of fresh water, fish, and electricity (Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt)

The northern parts of Cameia are traversed by the historic Benguela railway line which is being upgraded to form part of Angola’s Lobito Corridor that will eventually link the west coast of Angola at the Port of Lobito with Dar Es Salaam on the east coast of Tanzania.

WhyAfrica followed this rail line for more than 300km where it forms the northern boundary of the great wetlands of the Cameia National Park, another outflow of the Zambezi’s drainage basin.

This massive river basin and drainage area is an extremely important supplier of fresh water, electricity, and fish, not only to the local communities living within the basin, but to the entire southern African region.

The Zambezi Basin is home to immense plains and wetlands and regulates the climate and rich ecosystems of the savannas and humid forests that surround it. In addition, two major sub-basins in the Zambezi Basin are interconnected with other major African systems namely the Lake Malawi/Nyassa/Shire River sub-basin (WhyAfrica also visited Lake Malawi) and the perennial river bifurcation in the Selinda Spillway (or Magwegana River) in the Cuando River sub-basin, which connects the Zambezi Basin to the Kalahari Basin.

How will we balance development and conservation? (Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt)

Apart from its importance to the region’s communities and ecosystems the area also boasts spectacular geology, extremely fertile soils, and attractions with great tourism potential. Extensions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) and Zambian Copperbelts (copper and cobalt are now recognised as “critical” minerals) reach far into the heart of the Zambezi Basin, while rare and critical metals and minerals of global significance have been discovered in the highlands, lowlands, wetlands, and savannas of the basin and its sub-basins.

Thus, the Zambezi Basin is critical not only to the region, but to the whole world. There is no doubt that development will benefit some of the poorest communities in Africa. It will provide employment and result in the development of critical infrastructure with immense knock-on effects. The question is how will we balance development and conservation and how will all this affect sensitive ecosystems and local communities living in an area where extreme weather events have already made a significant impact?

Holistic approach critical in Western Zambia (Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt)  

Large-scale developments in central southern Africa and in the Zambezi Basin needs a balanced and holistic approach to ensure that important ecological systems are maintained, especially in areas like the Barotse floodplains in Western Zambia, where local communities are dependent on the health of these ecosystems.

In the race for critical minerals and other natural resources that occur in abundance in central southern Africa, it is important that the major tributaries, floodplains, and wetlands of the Zambezi Basin and other water systems are managed and prioritised when proposed developments take place in Angola, Western and North-Western Zambia and the south-east of the DRC.

Large-scale projects in the infrastructure, mining, energy. agriculture and water management sectors in the head waters of the Zambezi River in Zambia and Angola could be a threat to natural systems and local communities further downstream whose livelihood depends on healthy ecological systems.

The Barotse floodplain stretches from the Zambezi’s confluence with the Kabompo and Lungwebungu Rivers (close to the village of Watopa) in the north, to a point about 230 km south, above the Ngonye falls and south of Senanga.

As part of the Road Trip WhyAfrica visited the Barotse floodplain to gain a better understanding of developments in the whole region and what impact large-scale projects might have on the downstream ecology of the Zambezi River and on the communities living on its banks who depend on its seasonal flooding.

Along most of its length the width of the Barotse floodplain is more than 30km, reaching 50 to 80km at the widest, just north of the town of Mongu, situated at its edge. The main body of the plain covers about 5500 km², but the maximum flooded area is 10 750 km² when the floodplains of several tributaries are considered, such as the Luena Flats close to the Kafue National Park.

The Barotse floodplain is the second largest wetland in Zambia after the Lake Bangweulu system in the east of Zambia, which differs in having a large permanent lake and swamps, and a much smaller area which dries out annually.

During the rainy season (around November to April), the Barotse floodplain swell and flood, providing breeding grounds for large volumes of small fish that are gradually washed into the main channels attracting impressive volumes of large Tiger Fish and Bream.

The people on these floodplains are mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen who depend on the annual floods and the rich diversity of fish that they can harvest when the floodplain is inundated.

The Barotse system is influenced by major tributaries such as the Kabompo River, Luanginga River, Luambimba River and the Lungwebungu River that originates in Angola. These tributaries contribute to the flooding of the Barotse Floodplain.

Future depends on sustainable use of resources (Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt)

According to Dr. Machaya Chomba of the WWF Zambia, these systems are ecologically speaking still in a relatively pristine or in a near-natural state.

“The levels of endemism and biodiversity are overwhelming. However, the future of all this wealth depends on the wise use of these systems as these are literally the lifeline of local people and nature. We need to seriously reflect on human- nature interactions and consequent human impact on our wetland ecosystems,” says Dr. Chomba.

WWF Zambia is working with various stakeholders such as the Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) in identifying and declaring the head water of the Zambezi River as a Water Resource Protected Area (WRPA).

“This measure aims not only to secure the biodiversity of the floodplain but also ensure water security of local communities and downstream countries of the Zambezi River.”

Dr. Chomba wrote in 2020 that the Barotse system hosts more than 225, 000 who live and depend on the natural resources.

“The main livelihoods include fishing, livestock, and agriculture. The Barotse floodplain is one of the most productive ecosystems in Zambia in terms of fisheries diversity and yield – probably due to the natural flooding and receding that replenishes fish stock,” states Dr. Chomba.

Unsustainable practices result in increased pressure (Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt)

Over the last couple of years, the occurrence of unsustainable fishing practices such as use of Mosquitos nets (known as Sefa Sefa), fish poisoning and drag nets have become very common.

“This has resulted in increased pressure on the system with reduced size of fish. Recent fish catch assessment surveys on major tributaries such as the Luanginga, Luambimba Rivers and the Barotse floodplain have confirmed the assumption.

“It is time to consider a holistic management framework and consistency in monitoring of fisheries biodiversity collectively with local communities, Government Departments and the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE),” writes Dr. Chomba.

Invasive species a threat (Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt)  

According to the WWF Zambia, invasive alien species are becoming a major biodiversity threat. Recent assessment under the WWF Zambia Upper Zambezi Program in collaboration with partners such as the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) confirmed the occurrence of Mimosa Pigra and the Australian red claw crayfish on the Barotse floodplain respectively. A common finding from these assessments is the role that the hydrological regime plays in driving the spread of these species.

“Within the last five years, the invasive plant has spread from sporadic isolated pools along the Mongu-Kalabo Road to cover large areas of the plain driven by the flooding and receding of the Barotse.

“Based on lessons from other landscapes such as the Kafue Flats, the impact on biodiversity and the monetary cost of clearing invasive species can be significantly higher than the cost of limiting its spread. If not addressed, this will be one of the major biodiversity issues for the floodplain going forward,” warns the WWF.

During our 2023 WhyAfrica Road Trip we explored the Barotse floodplain from our base in Mongu, the capital of the Western Province in Zambia and the capital of the formerly named province and historic state of Barotseland.

Mongu is situated on a small blunt promontory of higher ground on the eastern edge of the 30-kilometre-wide Barotse floodplain of the Zambezi River running north–south, which in the wet season floods right up to the town.

The floodwaters travel down rivers and reach a flat area about 500 km in diameter formed from the sands of the Kalahari Desert. To the south around Ngonye Falls, the harder rock surface acts like a dam, resisting the tendency of rivers to cut channels through it. A floodplain forms behind it.

With water comes life and this is evident by the significant populations and variety of water birds that are present including the Black Heron, Squacco Heron, Madagascar Pond Heron, Rufous-Bellied Heron, African Skimmer and Pied Kingfisher. There is also a vast colony of African openbill storks, located near the confluence of the Luanginga and Zambezi Rivers. This is a designated Ramsar sight and a feast for birders.

Illegal logging another threat (Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt)

The Barotse floodplain is a linked lowland and upland system. Dr. Chomba says that the upland forest areas have come under increasing threats from both illegal and unsustainable forest logging that degrade the structure of these forests.

“Increased demand for hard wood forest species such as the Rosewood and the Zambezi Teak from international markers has resulted in increased extraction of these species. Local and national forests in districts such as Sesheke, Kaoma, Lukulu and Senanga have been heavily encroached,” says Dr. Chomba.

“WWF Zambia is working with various partners in exploring and identifying opportunities for forest-based enterprise projects that aim to up lift local communities, contribute to better management and attract private sector investment in the forest sector. This would enable that we protect and ensure that our forests continue to give and thrive for future generations,” Dr. Chomba concludes.

Take a look at the Barotse floodplain in the dry season by walking with WhyAfrica and kids from a village near Mongu to test the water quality on the floodplain.

Continue following WhyAfrica and subscribe to our newsletters and magazines as we unpack the findings and tell the stories of our 2023 WhyAfrica Road Trip over the next six months. Remember, if you sign up to become a WhyAfrica member, sponsor, or partner, you get so much more. In addition to all the other benefits of being a member of the prestigious WhyAfrica community, you’ll get a free copy of our in-dept Road Trip Report, which will be available towards the end of the year. To sign up and become a member click here:  https://www.whyafrica.co.za/product/membership/

Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt

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Finding a balance in Africa’s critical mineral belt  

 

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