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Wednesday 20 April 2022

Fears Grow Over Falls World Heritage Status

(20th April 2022)

There are increasing fears that the Victoria Falls/Mosi-oa-Tunya World Heritage Site (WHS) could be close to being placed on UNESCO's 'List of World Heritage Sites in Danger' following increasing tourism development pressure surrounding the natural wonder - leading to a fact finding visit from a UNESCO monitoring mission early this year - and the recent launch of tours to a previously pristine protected area, Cataract Island.

The core area of the Victoria Falls, covering some 6,860 hectares and including the river corridor upstream and downstream of the waterfall on both sides of the river, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1989. The Victoria Falls majority of the area of the WHS is protected under National Park designation on both sides of the river and managed by the respective national park authorities of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Victoria Falls, viewed from the western (Zimbabwe) end, showing 
Devil's Cataract in foreground (lower left), Cataract Island (centre left) 
and the Main Falls (centre right) [image credit: Peter Roberts]

Monitoring Mission

The joint UNESCO/IUCN monitoring mission, which visited in February this year, follows the recent development of the Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort on the Zambian side of the river, a short distance upstream of the Falls. A proposed development on the same sensitive site in 2006 also resulted in a monitoring mission and the subsequent implementation of a moratorium on all development within the WHS and surrounding areas until appropriate management plans and procedures were in place to adequately administer the site.

The planned development received widespread negative publicity before being ultimately rejected by authorities as being unsuitable and dropped by the developers. The new project appears to have gone ahead without UNESCO being fully informed or aware of the scale of the development on the ground, which commenced in mid-2020.

The World Heritage Committee, in its July 2021 Decision Report (44 COM 7B.177) concluded:

"[The Committee] Notes its utmost concern over the increasing tourism infrastructure development pressure within and around the property, including the start of the construction of the Mosi-oa-Tunya Livingstone Resort Hotel within the buffer zone of the property, contrary to its request to abandon the proposal, [and] urges the States Parties to halt further activities until further consultation with the World Heritage Centre and IUCN has taken place, all relevant Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) have been submitted to the World Heritage Centre and reviewed by IUCN, and the potential impacts of the infrastructure developments on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property have been adequately assessed."

Development of the new Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort has continued apace and is due to open by the end of 2022.

Over 12,500 people signed an online petition voicing opposition to the development.

Read More: New Hotel Development Threatens Livingstone's Elephants (12/08/20)

Another key aspect of the mission was to clarify the borders of the WHS, after the State Parties (Zambia and Zimbabwe) presented a significantly revised map of the site in their 2016-2021 Joint Management Plan, attempting to remove a significant section of the upstream river corridor.

In a recent media interview Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson Tinashe Farawo, confirmed the remit for the visit:

"The main reasons which triggered the... visit and which were subsequently adopted as Terms of Reference for the same Mission were:

(i) To assess the tourism developments in the core zone, buffer zone as well as surrounding areas - of particular concern being the Mosi Resort Hotel in Zambia,

(ii) To assess the potential impacts of the Batoka Gorge Hydro Power Scheme..,

(iii) To ascertain and verify the World Heritage Property boundaries,

(iv) To discuss the policy, legal frameworks that govern developments in the core zone, buffer zone as well as surrounding areas among other issues."

Danger to World Heritage Status?

Mr Farawo also attempted to down-play fears expressed in media news reports following the mission visit that the site may be 'delisted,' claiming them as baseless.

"The assertion that there are fears that Vic Falls could be delisted as a World Heritage site is baseless and marred by gross speculation."

Strictly speaking, of course, he is correct - there is no immediate threat of the Falls being 'delisted' as a World Heritage Site. What he doesn't acknowledge, however, is that there is a very real threat of the Victoria Falls being imminently placed on UNESCO's 'List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.'

Mr Farawo declined to expand on his comments for this article and when specifically asked if he felt there was a risk of the Falls being placed on this list.

Concerns remain that the 'State Parties,' Zambia and Zimbabwe, are continuing to fail in their commitments to inform UNESCO of new developments before they happen (for example, the newly launched Cataract Island activity, see below); that tourism pressures are negatively impacting on the scenic value and ecological fabric of the Falls and surrounding areas; and that if developments continue to be approved without due process, UNESCO will be left with no option other than to add the Falls to their 'Danger List.'

In his media interview Mr Farawo referred to two other recently proposed developments on the Zambian side of the river as evidence of the effectiveness of the management of the site, indicating that they had been rejected by authorities:

"Some cases of interest that show that State Parties are truly preserving the... [site] include the turning down of the glass bridge across the falls, [and] the erection of the ferries wheel in the core zone." 

The fact remains, however, that these and other unsuitable proposals continue to be regularly presented, and even represented, by the State Parties to UNESCO when plainly not appropriate to the site.

A New Threat

Despite all the focus on increasing tourism pressures and pending UNESCO mission report, a local tourism operator in Zimbabwe chose this month to launch a new activity, presumably authorised under agreement with the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, promoting exclusive tours to Cataract Island and swimming in a natural pool on the edge of the Falls, similar to the tours offered to Livingstone Island from the Zambian side of the river.

Together with the launch of a new website,, a promotional launch email was sent to tourism agents by Zambezi Crescent, operators of the Victoria Falls River Lodge:

"A fully guided experience including a short boat trip across the calm waters of the channel to Cataract Island. Once disembarked, a guided tour of the Island follows, including time to explore the new section of Victoria Falls that is busy forming. Enjoy plenty of free time for optional swimming in the warm, clear pools on the face of the falls, or to explore some of the most spectacular scenery that nature has to offer." 

Cataract Pools, on the lip of the Falls [image credit:]

Cataract Island, a the western end of the Falls, is, or should we say was, the last area of the 'rainforest,' the rich vegetation zone immediately surrounding the Falls and supported by the never ending spray, untouched by tourism. This fragile environment nourishes a diverse flora of ground plants and shrubs, highly vulnerable to trampling and disturbance. It is also, significantly, the point where the erosion of a new gorge and waterfall is beginning to form in the ongoing geological evolution of the Falls. It is not only, therefore, of key ecological importance to the Falls as we see them today, but also in the ongoing process of the development of a future rainforest zone alongside a new waterfall - an island Ark containing the species diversity to propagate the future Falls. 

There are also concerns that the activity will add to the numbers of tourists visible on the edge of the Falls from the main view points in the Falls 'rainforest,' as is already the case with tours to Livingstone Island and the 'Devil's Pool,' negatively impacting on the visitor experience to the Falls for tens of thousands of visitors every year.

In 2011 another well established local tourism operator considered launching the same tour and activity, but after strong opposition wisely decided that the island was too ecologically sensitive to sustain tourism activities and should remain a pristine reserve. In 2016 the company currently attempting to launch the Cataract Pools activity had their proposal rejected over concerns on the sensitivity of the site (including another online petition, signed by over 17,750 people). 

Read More: Cataract Island threatened by tourism development (06/12/16)

The Victoria Falls - showing Cataract Island (lower left)

The new proposal, which is rumoured to include the development of a restaurant facility mid-way along Zambezi Drive, at the point from where boats will take tourists to the island, was launched without public or local stakeholder consultation, with no public Environmental Impact Assessment disclosure, or it would appear, without duly notifying UNESCO - for if they had they would surely have been informed that it was an unsuitable proposal for such a critical area of the World Heritage Site.

Zambezi Crescent have been asked to clarify the status of their cataract pools activity, but at the time of publishing this article have yet to reply.

It remains to be seen if the activity and associated developments will be allowed to continue - if they do there must be serious concerns over not only the future of the Victoria Falls World Heritage Listing, but also the ability and effectiveness of UNESCO to protect and preserve our World Heritage Sites.

The mission will present its final report to the 45th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, scheduled to be held in Kazan, Russia in June 2022.

Weblinks / Further Information

Cataract Pools 

Zambezi Crescent 

UNESCO World Heritage Site Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls 

Cataract Island threatened by tourism development (06/12/16)

New Hotel Development Threatens Livingstone's Elephants (12/08/20)

Radisson Hotel Group announces its arrival at Victoria Falls, an UNESCO world heritage site (20/04/21)

Peter Roberts is a freelance researcher and writer with a special focus on natural and human history of the Victoria Falls. He is author of serval books on the history and human development of the region, including 'Footsteps Through Time - a history of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls,' [].

UPDATE: Online petition launched: Keep Victoria Falls Wild - Stop commercialization of Cataract Island and Surrounding majestic wild areas (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe). Please sign and share...

Read More: Keep Victoria Falls Wild


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