Unspooling the rope tied to a metal bucket, Shylet Nhari listened to the repeated clangs of the tin striking the walls of the well as her bucket made its way down.
When she pulled the container back up, she found it filled with undrinkable, muddy water. Water levels in the well are dwindling fast and not being replenished, she said.
Nhari, 46, lives in Westlea, a middle-class suburb of the Zimbabwean capital and an area built on wetlands. Like many residents, she has no piped water and relies on the well, which has become more erratic in the face of longer drought.
“Since 2015, our wells here started having problems in storing groundwater for longer periods as they began to dry up quickly,” she said.
Residents like Nhari, and a growing number of newcomers to Harare, find themselves in a bind. They need somewhere to live, and developers are all too ready to sell them land in wetland areas. But as construction covers more wetlands, water sources are drying up.
Wetlands — which include bogs and swamps — are essential to the well-being of the city, environmentalists say. They can ease the impacts of a changing climate by helping maintain groundwater levels, and protect areas from the worst impacts of floods by absorbing excess water.
By law, anyone intending to build on a wetland must apply for a permit from the government’s Environmental Management Agency (EMA).
In January, EMA threatened to evict wetland residents in Masvingo, one of the country’s oldest towns, saying their homes had been built without government approval.
But in Westlea, Nhari is skeptical about the likelihood of enforcement.
“I have lived here for close to 10 years and have not seen any resident being questioned for building on this so-called wetland,” she said. She added that she didn’t know how wetlands function and why they are important.
According to EMA spokesman Steady Kangata, 27 wetland areas in Harare and Chitungwiza, a town 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Zimbabwean capital, have been partially built on.
In Chitungwiza, 14 out of 15 wetlands have been built on, and 13 of Harare’s 29 wetlands have been taken over for construction, Kangata told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Approximately 60 percent of Harare’s and Chitungwiza’s wetlands have been invaded or taken over for construction purposes. All these constructions on wetlands are unlawful,” Kangata said.
The Westlea wetland is an area of 123 hectares (304 acres). It has 87 houses, the first of which was built in 2008, according to the Harare Residents Trust, a nongovernmental organization.
Nhari moved into her home in 2009 with her husband, after he bought a 600-square-meter plot from a private landowner. She says she has a deed of sale to prove it, but what she doesn’t have is water.
Less water absorbed
Environmental experts say residents like Nhari are the source of their own problems.
“A wetland acts like a sponge which absorbs water and then recharges underground water so that the water table remains high. Construction disrupts this process,” said Sandra Gobvu of Environment Africa, a nongovernmental organization that works in southern Africa to promote sustainable development.
When wetland areas are concreted over, much less water is absorbed, Gobvu added.
Wetlands also help control flooding by absorbing excess water and releasing it gradually into water bodies, she said.
“If we preserved them in their natural state, wetlands would actually help us adapt to the changing climatic conditions,” said Barnabas Mawire, Environment Africa’s Zimbabwe country director.
He thinks that while Zimbabwe’s widespread water problems are due to a number of factors, wetland destruction plays a role.
“Climate change will make future efforts to restore or rehabilitate wetlands more difficult, especially if we continue to destroy them at this rate,” said Mawire.
Environmental activists in Zimbabwe say they are struggling to keep up with the rate of wetlands encroachment.
“It is hard to measure the proportion of construction work occurring on wetlands here, because daily we wake up to new building activities emerging around many wetlands,” said Liberty Chiura, a member of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association.
Meanwhile, landowners say they are not acting illegally by selling wetlands plots.
“We don’t just wake up and start pegging land at wetlands for people without binding permits from local authorities,” said Elton Javangwe, a private landowner based in Harare.
“This is part of a farm I bought and later decided to subdivide before selling housing stands, after local authorities and EMA regularized it,” Javangwe said.
Mawire said that some construction on wetlands is authorized.
“Developers know they have to apply to the Environmental Management Authority for permits to build, and they do get these permits at times,” he said.
“However, there are many other people who invade pieces of land without any knowledge that there are wetlands and start construction. And there are others who know but deliberately ignore what the law says and go on to build,” Mawire added.
He said that as people migrate from the countryside and demand for land in urban areas increases, new residents are unlikely to be aware of the risks of building on wetlands, to themselves and the broader community.
“The developer might know, but sadly for many people, they only realize the consequences once they finish building and start experiencing floods, cracks and collapse of infrastructure,” said Mawire.
Failure to abide by Zimbabwe’s laws governing wetlands can result in a fine of up to $500, imprisonment of up to two years, or both.
Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Oppah Muchinguri has the power to serve a written order to stop development on any wetland.
“As government, we are accountable for handling wetlands and we have to accept accountability where we would have failed,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We now have an interministerial task force to investigate the building of properties on wetlands and take possible action in order to protect our threatened wetlands, [which are] crucial to restoring water basins,” Muchinguri added.