Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Victoria Falls : A Fragile Power

This is the text of an article written by freelance conservation writer Sally Wynn on development at and around the Victoria Falls and published in Africa Geographic Magazine in 1995. Despite being nearly ten years old, the issues highlighted in this article are as pressing and relevant as ever. Victoria Falls town has grown hugely in the last fifty years, and development continues.  Note the Makasa Sun has since been redeveloped as The Kingdom. See blogpost 'Paradise lost?' for an update on recent developments in Victoria Falls, including several significant developments currently being proposed.

by Sally Wynn
Africa Geographic Magazine
Vol.3, No.1, January 1995

Last July, the President of Zimbabwe announced that his government would carry out a study to assess the environmental impact of tourism in the Victoria Falls area. Conservationists, Victoria Falls residents and members of the tourism industry were delighted - they have long been worried about the way things run in the popular tourist town, and the effect this all may be having on the very fragile wilderness which makes this one of the world's greatest natural wonders.

A year later, Phase One of this document has been completed by consultants in the Department of Natural Resources. The study urges increased co-operation between Zimbabwe and Zambia in promoting environmentally sustainable tourism development. It calls for a major environmental awareness campaign aimed at all sectors of the Victoria Falls community, and for a Tourism Development Master Plan, incorporating environmental and natural resource management considerations, to be prepared and implemented. This could take years. In the meantime, the report recommends that the Victoria Falls Town Council be given greater authority to plan and manage its own development and to ensure that proper environmental impact studies are carried out before any more development takes place in the area.

This begs the question of why the Town Council lacks authority in the first place, and how some large hotels have recently been allowed to ignore carefully formulated planning controls aimed at preventing environmental damage and overdevelopment in the Falls area.

The report contains some interesting recommendations which should spark off lively public debate, and raise some pertinent questions about which matters more - tourism revenue or the welfare of the environment it relies on. Since the one is largely dependent on the other, it would be logical to assume that the recommendations of the impact study should be followed to the letter … but, as usual, when there are large amounts of money involved, it probably won't be as simple as that. For the report recommends (among other things) the banning of helicopter flights over the Falls and the complete removal of electric fences around tourist developments. This should outrage a few operators and hoteliers who are reaping profits at the expense of the environment.

The most obvious cause for concern must, of course, be the impact of so many tourist feet tramping the paths of the fragile ecosystem of the rain forest and other riverine habitats. The tourism impact report fully endorses the sensible move taken by the Department of National Parks to impose an entry fee to ensure that only bona fide visitors enter the rain forest. In order to ensure that this beautiful and tiny patch of natural paradise will survive for future generations, very hard-wearing but environmentally sensitive pathways have been constructed, visitors are directed into a one-way system and are warned of the dire consequences of their straying from the paths and disturbing the vegetation or the wildlife. More monitoring of tourist movement is called for, and it is suggested that numbers of visitors at any one time be restricted to an agreed maximum.

As more and more tourists visit the Victoria Falls (156000 arrivals in 1992 as compared with 46000 arrivals in 1983), the growth of the town to accommodate them has taken little account of an original Outline Plan laid down to protect the area from over development. There is lack of a precise planning law stipulating that buildings in Victoria Falls should not rise above tree height. While some hotels have clearly made an effort to blend well into the environment (Masuwe Lodge, the A'Zambezi River Lodge and Ilala Lodge, for example), skyline intruders like the Makasa Sun and Elephant Hills hotels spoil the otherwise natural appearance of the landscape.

In addition, the nearly completed Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, for example, is built on land originally set aside as a wildlife corridor from the Zambezi National Park to the river. This has created a whole new problem - keeping potentially dangerous large animals at a safe distance from tourists. Electric fences have been erected to 'protect' the new Safari Lodge and the Elephant Hills Golf Course. But they are unpopular with local people who say they are hazardous, and with conservationists who argue that they cut across game corridors and are, in fact, often ineffective (both elephant and buffalo are able to breach electric fences). The tourism impact report recommends that all barriers such as electric fences should be pulled down to allow free movement of wildlife. It calls for much tighter controls on the siting and appearance of buildings to avoid further undesirable environmental impact and to ensure that game is able to move freely past the town.

One of the major problems apparent in the Victoria Falls (and indeed elsewhere along the Zambezi River) is that there appears to be little cross-border co-operation between the Zimbabwean and Zambian authorities when it comes to enforcing regulations for the sake of the environment.
The two countries have a Joint Technical Committee on Tourism and Natural Resources, but this group meets only infrequently. It is blatantly obvious from a number of examples in the Victoria Falls that some unscrupulous companies are exploiting loopholes in the system because the two nations lack cohesion in their approach to conservation and protection of the area. It appears that some operators are able to obtain permission from Zambia to carry out activities banned in Zimbabwe (and vice versa). This situation sets a dangerous precedent. It extends to a wide range of activities, including overnight camping on hitherto undisturbed island refuges in the middle of the river, bungee jumping from the Victoria Falls bridge, boating on the river and flights over the Falls.

Noise pollution is a major problem for residents and visitors alike in the Falls. Air charter companies on both sides of the river are making 'big bucks' out of 20-minute flips over the Falls to allow tourists to view the spectacle from the air. The report recommends much stricter controls on the number of aircraft and minimum flying heights, and suggests that all flight activities in the Falls be based at the main airport which lies 24 kilometres south of the town, away from residential, commercial and tourist areas. It calls for a total ban on helicopter joyrides. Fixed wing planes can stay, suggests the study, but consideration must be given to their noise being muffled by some sort of silencing device. A laudable (if not entirely feasible) suggestion. However, unless there is considerably improved co-operation from the Zambian authorities in enforcing such limitations, there will be little reprieve from the incessant din and whine of engines which has become a feature of the 'tourism experience' at the Falls.

Likewise, along the Zambezi River upstream from the Falls, lack of cross-border cohesion on the issuing of boating licences has resulted in a proliferation of vessels operating 'sunset booze cruises'. Some evenings there may be as many as 18 boats chugging up and down - all disturbing the wildlife and ruining the peace and tranquillity of a sunset experience on the Zambezi River, so carefully outlined in each company's advertising blurb. The number of licences issued to companies operating from the Zimbabwean bank is ostensibly strictly limited by the Department of National Parks. But companies refused a permit in Zimbabwe are simply taking advantage of a convenient loophole and are obtaining permission to operate from the Zambian side of the river - to the detriment of its environment. Some appear to be operating whole fleets of vessels at any one time, and each year the boats get bigger because the licence costs the same, regardless of the size of the boat. The proliferation of boats has resulted in a proliferation of jetties and onshore facilities - not all of which have been constructed with due care and concern for the environment. Apart from anything else, what sort of pollutants are the engines at those jetties emitting? And what sort of effect is all the wave action having on the breeding sites of certain birds (such as the African skimmer) which nest on islands in the river?

The tourism impact report calls for much stricter regulations regarding boating, and makes special mention of the need for Zimbabwe and Zambia to co-ordinate controls and the issuing of licences. Indeed, there is some glimmer of hope that such cross-border discrepancies will receive serious attention in the future. An international conservation organization intends to prepare a management plan for the area which will span both sides of the river. This is good news indeed.

There are other, less obvious, environmental problems in the Victoria Falls, many of which have come about because the town council is failing to exercise existing controls already laid down in the bylaws.

What, for example, happens to all the rubbish? Hotels are notorious waste producers and notoriously bad at waste management. The unfenced municipal rubbish dump is an environmental disaster area, posing a serious health hazard as it remains largely unburied, is invaded by human and animal scavengers and overflows into a nearby river bed from where its potentially toxic contents are carried … who knows where? … when the river is in flood. The report again urges tighter controls and has some practical suggestions about fencing the area and burying the rubbish and suggests alternative and more appropriate sites for landfill dumping.

Cutting of local hardwood trees for firewood and for the carving of curios remains unchecked and will continue to do so until council bylaws are enforced. The report's suggestion that electricity be supplied to the town's high-density suburb, thus reducing the need to burn wood for fuel, is a laudable one - but unlikely to succeed in its ultimate goal, as few occupants will be able to afford electricity charges.

It is not within the scope of the report to highlight some of the success stories on the environmental front. But there are some, and it's worth drawing attention to these, to highlight the commitment of some sections of the Victoria Falls community. The town itself and the beauty spots along the river are being kept clean by the Victoria Falls 'Clean Team' - a successful campaign organized and sponsored by a group of local companies. An area of derelict land near the municipal camping site and adjacent to the railway line is being rehabilitated into a parkland, under the guidance of a local business-woman. A severely eroded gully near Chinotimba high-density suburb has been reclaimed and a drainage canal constructed to divert surface water runoff and prevent further erosion. New sewage filtration ponds below the Victoria Falls Hotel have successfully replaced an antiquated and environmentally unacceptable system whereby untreated sewage was discharged into the Zambezi River (the Zambian town of Livingstone still pumps its raw sewage into the Zambezi).

And slowly, very slowly, the rest of Zimbabwe is becoming aware of the need to protect its greatest tourism asset. The government's initiative to undertake an Environmental Impact Study for the Victoria Falls was a welcome and long overdue step. But it will only be effective for the environment if its recommendations are swiftly and boldly implemented.

The Victoria Falls community, concerned citizens of Zimbabwe and environmentalists all over the world are waiting to see whether their research is followed by firm action in the right direction. If so, there is hope for the future of this most precious of the region's tourism assets. And a fine example will have been set for the future management of the other jewels in southern Africa's tourism crown.

Sally Wynn is a freelance journalist based in Harare and she specializes in issues related to travel and the environment. She has edited The Traveller's Times, an independent newspaper for visitors to Zimbabwe, and was previously assistant editor of Countryside Commission News, the official journal of a British environmental organization.

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