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Holistic approach critical in Angola DRC and Zambia

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A fisherman with his fishing net on the Barotse floodplain close to the town of Mongu in Western Zambia. The Barotse system hosts more than 225, 000 people who live and depend on the natural resources. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Holistic approach critical in Angola, DRC and Zambia  

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

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

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 Democratic Republic of the Congo (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.

WhyAfrica recently visited the Barotse floodplain in Western Zambia as part of our 2023 WhyAfrica Road Trip to get a better idea about 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 and depending on the 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 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 floodplains is the second largest wetland in Zambia after the Lake Bangweulu system, 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 floodplains 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 (Holistic approach critical in Angola, DRC and Zambia)

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 productivity ecosystem 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 (Holistic approach critical in Angola, DRC and Zambia)   

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

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

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.

Holistic approach critical in Angola, DRC and Zambia


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Holistic approach critical in Angola, DRC and Zambia  

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