Zimbabwe – Zambia: Is Victoria Falls under threat from development projects?

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Monday, 26 September 2022 13:14

Water pours over the edge of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Zimbabwe’s government is looking to gain $5bn in revenue from the tourism industry by 2025. To achieve this ambitious target, it has been approving investors who want to tap into different opportunities in touristic towns around the country, including infrastructure development, particularly in Victoria Falls. However, environmentalists have warned that these projects pose a danger to flora and fauna near the falls and along the mighty Zambezi River.

“The commercial activity on Cataract Island impacts an acutely sensitive area of the main falls,” says Larry Norton, an artist based in Victoria Falls who has filed a case at the High Court in the capital Harare, along with other residents, to stop these developments.

“The proposed restaurant site is on the edge of the river 40 metres from the rainforest fence. They have already started clearing riverine bush,” says Norton.

He reiterates that the infrastructure is threatening flora and fauna in the area.

“Both are, in my opinion, damaging to the universal ecological value of this profoundly important World Heritage Site, which is why, as a citizen, supported by nine other applicants, I have fought this,” says Norton, who has also started an online petition to stop the construction of the lodges.

This year, UNESCO – after conducting its fact-finding mission – warned both the Zambian and Zimbabwean governments that Victoria Falls could lose its World Heritage status if they do not halt the construction of hotels and a golf course.

Developments on the horizon

Proposed and approved infrastructure developments are already moving ahead in restricted areas of Victoria Falls.

On the Zimbabwean side of things:

  • Zambezi Crescent, a tourism operator, has already begun commercialising Cataract Island.
  • Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) has issued permits to two firms, Adage Success Private Limited and Scanner Investments, to build lodges in the Victoria Falls rainforest.
  • Lamcent Capital is building a hotel near the banks of the Zambezi River after entering into a partnership with the Victoria Falls Town Council.

On the Zambian side, the planned projects include:

  • The Radisson Blu Livingstone Hotel and Golf Course financed by Zambia’s state-owned National Pension Scheme Authority.

Importance of Victoria Falls

Sandwiched at the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the majestic Victoria Falls – popularly known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) is one of the world’s largest waterfalls.

Designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1989, Victoria Falls, which is located within the Victoria Falls National Park, is home to species of plants and animals.

Victoria Falls’s fame as a heritage site is hinged on its unspoiled beauty.

Besides baboons, hippopotamus, and crocodiles that are seen in the area, African bush elephants migrate here during the dry season.

The Victoria Falls is not only of great significance to the tourists that flock to the area to enjoy viewing the pristine waters that flow through the gorges, observe wild animals, and cross over the two arch bridge downstream, but it’s also of great important to the Tonga, a local group whose traditions and culture are linked to the falls.

Developments can protect

However, Farai Chimba, president of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe, believes property developments safeguard the environment if done in a sustainable way to avoid loss of the natural habitats.

“We welcome developments anchored […] on sustainabl[e] practices which the country has done considerably well through various programmes running through [the] private sector and government,” he says.

“Case in point is the safari camps within national parks that saw a huge increase in poaching activities when tourism shut down. Revenue from the travellers is used to finance conservation efforts.”

Chimba says rooms for visitors at destinations like Victoria Falls and Bulawayo are still far from reaching the required capacity, adding there is enough space for more beds.

Could Victoria Falls lose its World Heritage status?

UNESCO’s report noted that some of the development projects could disrupt an elephant’s corridor.

“These developmental projects involve ground clearing to facilitate the building of infrastructure. There are some challenges to this,” Roselilly Ushewokunze, a social and economic justice advocate based in Victoria Falls, tells The Africa Report.

Expansion in wild places will lead to pollution, for example, of land and water sources due to human activity

“Victoria Falls’s fame as a heritage site is hinged on its unspoiled beauty. Proposed developments on the river bank spoil the natural beauty, which is [a] habitat to numerous floral, which make up over 400 plant species and fauna, which is largely dependent on the ecosystem.”

She says the scarcity of resources in itself is a problem as it leads to human-wildlife conflict.

“We already have a high number of those and closure of wildlife corridors to facilitate building will only aggravate the challenge,” she says.

“Expansion in wild places will lead to pollution, for example, of land and water sources due to human activity. Fauna relies on the wild ecosystem [and] any disturbance will lead to a scarcity of resources.”

Zimbabwe has been experiencing human and wildlife conflict in most wildlife areas around the country, particularly between elephants and villagers, as the two compete for few available resources, including food and water precipitated by climate change-induced droughts.

Zimparks claims the number of elephants has exceeded the country’s wildlife parks carrying capacity.

As the UN’s climate summit, COP27, to be held in Egypt in November this year approaches, calls are growing for both the Mnangagwa and Hakainde Hichilema-led governments to intervene and stop the infrastructure development in Victoria Falls, so as to protect biodiversity.

Lack of transparency and corruption

The ambitious development projects by the Zimbabwean government are shrouded in mystery as there is a lack of transparency.

Residents believe corruption is at the centre of the whole process from tenders to approval by various government departments.

Zimparks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo, Environmental Management Agency spokesperson Amkela Sidage, and Victoria Falls Town Council town clerk Ronnie Dube did not respond to questions sent to them by The Africa Report.

Zambia’s information minister Chushi Kasanda referred questions to his tourism counterpart, who did not respond.

Adage Success Private Limited, of the firms that was to construct lodges in Victoria Falls with Zimparks had its lease cancelled in 2018 by the Procurement Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, a state-owned agency citing failure to follow proper tender procedures.

PRAZ had received a complaint from an anonymous person advising them that Zimparks had corruptly awarded a tender to that Adage Success Private Limited and the wildlife authority was fined.

That same company is back again with another permit from Zimparks and only time will tell if the deal is clean.

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