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Friday 29 July 2022

Zambian Dilemma Over Victoria Falls Heritage Status

 Lusaka, Zambia — ZAMBIANS are divided over the warning by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Victoria Falls could lose its world heritage site status.

The agency attributed the likely loss of the status to development of a golf course, lodges and a hydroelectric dam near the natural wonder that is between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

It is believed such projects would tamper some animal corridors and natural sites.

Zambians are divided as to whether the country must grow the tourism industry and have the falls risk losing its world heritage status, or to retain the status at the expense of the growth of the lucrative sector.

"Let it loose it(s) status," said Martin Chabu.

"The benefits outweigh the status, which doesn't even bring us any financial benefits as a country. Those construction projects will create jobs, increase power generation and will do us well as a country," Chabu added.

Elijah Nyondo concurred.

"It is better we proceed with the project than maintaining a status that is just symbolic and will not bring us any benefits," he added.

Others like Mulenga Mwansa differed.

"Today, Europe is being affected by global warming because of the disruption in the natural environment. We cannot afford it," said Mwansa.

In fact, Southern Africa, where Zambia is located is warming faster than rest of world.

Noah Banda also supported the stance by UNESCO on the Victoria Falls.

"UNESCO is right on this one," he said.

"We need to preserve this area from artificial disturbances such as building all around this area," Banda said.

Banda believes the said projects would eventually destroy the natural and nature balance in terms of fauna and flora.

"We must not overbuild. We need to adjust for the sake of sustainability, taking in mind future environmental balance," he said expertly.

Other Zambians believe if the construction of the projects went ahead, and Victoria Falls lose its status, it would still be counterproductive as the status was draw card for tourists in the first place.

The hotel thus would be a white elephant.

"What's the use of the hotel if the place is no longer a tourist attraction?" Muweme Muweme quipped.

Johnstone Chikwanda, the energy expert also supports foregoing the world heritage status in favour of the projects that UNESCO is against.

He argued the Batoka Gorge Dam project, for example, would generate 2 400MW of energy, at a time Africa has 640 million without power.

"So forget the Victoria Falls, forget the UNESCO heritage status. Let the golf course project proceed. Let the Batoka hydro power station expansion project take place," Chikwanda emphasised.

Victoria Falls, on the Zambezi River, has enjoyed world heritage status since 1989.

The region teems with wildlife moving between some national parks.

There are sizeable populations of elephant, Cape buffalo, giraffe, Grant's zebra, and a variety of antelope as well as vervet monkeys and baboons.

The river above the falls contains vast populations of hippopotamus and crocodile.

Herons, fish eagles and numerous kinds of waterfowl are common.

The Zambazi is said to be home to over 120 species of fish in the area.

A notable aspect of the area's vegetation is the rainforest nurtured by the spray from the falls.

Source: Zambian Dilemma Over Victoria Falls Heritage Status (28/07/22)

Tuesday 26 July 2022

US$3m needed to craft Victoria Falls masterplan

Victoria Falls City Council (VFCC) needs about US$3 million to craft a masterplan for the city and has partnered with the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency (Zida) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) who have partly financed the initiative.

Zida is an investment agency responsible for promoting and facilitation of both local and foreign investment in the country while IFC is an international financial institution under the World Bank, and offers investment, advisory and asset management services to encourage private-sector development in less developed countries.

The local authority became a city in 2019 and is still using the 1975 Regional Town and Country Planning Act.

This has raised concern among stakeholders who have implored the council to speed up the process of coming up with a masterplan to guide land use.

Victoria Falls is a strategic tourism destination whose operations have a huge bearing towards the attainment of the Government’s US$5 billion tourism economy target by 2025, and Vision 2030 of achieving an upper middle-income society.

However, speaking at a stakeholders meeting that was held on Wednesday to introduce a Destination Management and Air Access committee set up to spearhead revival of tourism in the resort city, tour operators and hoteliers said absence of a masterplan was resulting in mushrooming of facilities on buffer zones which disturbs the pristine nature of the World’s Seventh Wonder.

Some said expansion plans are also retarded as investors are not sure of where to build.

Speaking at the same meeting, VFCC economic development and marketing officer Mr Ngqabutho Moyo told the stakeholders that the council needs about US$3 million for the masterplan.

“The masterplan that the local authority intends to come up with covers a radius of about 25km with a number of stakeholders in it. For that masterplan to come into fruition it means all those stakeholders have to collaborate and contribute towards its finalisation.

“Council realised that the sphere of influence and stakeholders that are going to be involved in the combined masterplan are the same therefore with Zida and IFC they sort of came to an understanding that since the local authority doesn’t have resources to raise about US$3 million dedicated to the masterplan, it would be ideal that the Masue initiative takes off so that data that will be collected will be used in the combined masterplan,” he said.

VFCC expansion plan extends to Masue state land that was designated for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and falls under Hwange Rural District Council.

Work is underway to operationalise Masue City concept through the Integrated Development Programme/Conceptual Development Framework which incorporates the city, for the Victoria Falls-Hwange-Binga SEZ whose idea is to integrate economic activities, catapult growth and improve livelihoods in the province.

Government plans to build Masue and Batoka satellite towns as part of the Victoria Falls Development Plan corridor comprising Masue Stateland, Batoka, Mlibizi, Binga Centre, Sijalila, Hwange Hinterland and Gwayi-Shangani resort.

Zida special projects director Ms Silibaziso Chizwina told the meeting that some investors had shown interest in investing in the Masue State land and Zida is waiting for the finalisation of the master plan which it is collaborating on with the local authority.

In a follow up interview, VFCC Town Clerk Mr Ronnie Dube said the local authority had set aside US$105 million for the project and had advertised for prospective consultants.

He said the master plan will take 18 months to come up with from the day actual work will start.

“We are in the process of coming up with a master plan and we are working in partnership with Zida with assistance from IFC. We are at the stage of procuring a consultant,” said Mr Dube.

He said the master plan will determine land use.

He implored stakeholders to understand that a master plan is a statutory document whose development follows legal procedure constituting advertising in the Press and waiting for specified periods before the next step can be undertaken, hence it is a process.

“While we admit that it’s not easy to operate without a masterplan, we need to understand that it’s a process. We have been using the Regional Town and Country Planning Act and it’s still useful but the masterplan will address concerns coming from stakeholders.

Mr Dube said the masterplan has to be in sync with the local authority’s vision for a green city.

Unesco has also recommended an integrated masterplan for Victoria Falls and Livingstone in Zambia as they share the natural heritage, and Mr Dube said the council is considering the matter but will escalate it to the Ministry of Local Government and Public Works since it is a bi-lateral issue.

Source: US$3m needed to craft Victoria  Falls masterplan (25/07/22)

Saturday 23 July 2022

Conservationists’ concern at overdevelopment at Vic Falls

 Concerns have been raised about possible overdevelopment in and around the Victoria Falls, a Unesco World Heritage Site, that could put the area’s environmental stability at risk. 

This follows news by the Victoria Falls City Council that the development of a US$50 million hotel is to go ahead. Construction was on hold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hotel site is located close to the iconic Victoria Falls and situated between the Zambezi River Lodge and the new Palm River Lodge.

The project is a partnership between the Victoria Falls City Council and project promoter, Lamcent Capital, a Harare equity investment company. 

Construction is expected to start soon, although an opening date has yet to be announced. 

Victoria Falls City Council Town Clerk, Ronnie Dube, was quoted by state-owned newspaper, The Herald, as saying that a multinational hospitality company would be appointed to manage the hotel.

He said the development was a “legitimate arrangement with Cabinet approval”. He defended the development, noting that it would bring jobs and revenue to the city.

Tourism Business Council of Zimbabwe President, Wengayi Nhau, was also cited in The Herald as welcoming the hotel as a “positive development” for Zimbabwe’s tourism industry. 

The development has met with criticism from local conservationists who have concerns that the numerous developments in Victoria Falls are eroding the wild spaces that are a large part of the attraction of this World Heritage Site. 

The Zambezi Society has expressed similar concerns, noting on its website: “We have, on previous occasions, called for a moratorium on all development in the area until proper planning mechanisms have been put in place.  We will do so again.”

The Zambezi Society pointed out that there were other developments of concern, including  that ground clearance was currently  taking place on the banks of the Zambezi River just upstream of Devil's Cataract for a restaurant to be built adjacent to the fenced edge of the Rainforest.

Furthermore, according to them, investors are being sought for several developments within national park land close to Victoria Falls, including a restaurant and jetty on a 13.5 ha island on the Zambezi River. 

Petition started

Local resident and renowned artist, Larry Norton, has started a petition to “stop the commercialisation of Cataract Island and surrounding majestic wild areas (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)”. 

In his petition, Norton writes: “As Victoria Falls expands as a city, growth and development opportunities are natural and important. However, it is equally important and imperative for these developments to be balanced against the erosion of wild spaces which are the very attraction of this World Heritage Site, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

“The absolute protection of this natural phenomenon and the unspoilt surrounding area is urgently needed.”

At the time of publication, close to 12 000 signatures had been garnered. Norton hopes to gather 15 000 signatures in total. 

This petition is an appeal to the ZPWMA, Zimbabwean Government, City Council authorities to:

  • Stop commercialisation of the pristine Cataract Island
  • Stop another company from constructing a restaurant in unspoiled riverine bush, 55 metres from the Rainforest boundary.
  • Stop commercialisation of an island upriver. 

Additional reporting by Gaongalelwe Dinale.

Source: Conservationists’ concern at overdevelopment at Vic Falls (22/07/22)

Victoria Falls gets new street lights

THE Victoria Falls City Council City Council (VFCC) has started installing solar powered street lights as the local authority intensifies the implementation of the green city concept.

The resort city, besides being the only city in Matabeleland North, does not have street lights or traffic lights even in the central business district (CBD).

The old street lights that used to be along Livingstone Way were vandalised years back while thieves stole solar panels and solar batteries from those that were installed by CBZ when the financial institution implemented a housing project in 2016.

The city entered into a US$3 million partnership deal with a private company, Satewave Technologies to install solar streetlights under a build-operate-transfer arrangement, among other projects.

The first phase saw Satewave Technologies putting up bus stops fitted with solar charging booths and green environment recycling bins at strategic points around the city.

Satewave Technologies will put up more than 100 solar street lights along Livingstone Way and some selected roads in Low Density suburb, VFCC Town Clerk Mr Ronnie Dube said.

A news crew observed that work had already started at some points where the poles will be put along the road have been dug.

Mr Dube said the new street lights will be taller and batteries mounted at the top to prevent vandalism, and appealed to residents to jealously guard the street lights as their own property.

“We are putting up over 100 solar street lights along Livingstone Way which is our main road and some other selected streets in the low-density area.

“This project started in 2018 and was disturbed by Covid-19. This current phase is worth US$150 000 and we expect to complete this phase before the rains start,” said Mr Dube.

He said the partnership entails that Satewave Technologies will install the street lights and have maintenance team stationed in Victoria Falls to monitor the property.

Satewave Technologies will pull out after two years.

The company is getting advertising space in return.

“This is a drive towards the green city initiative where we want to create a smart city. We also encourage people to go towards the smart city concept,” said Mr Dube.

He said the council opted for solar powered lights because the renewable energy is relatively cheaper than the grid electricity because after installation is done the council will be left to cater for maintenance costs alone.

Mr Dube appealed to members of the community to desist from vandalising the street lights and avoid a repeat of the CBZ stands and BC848 scenario.

“Instead of only focusing on the negatives, we appeal to our residents to look into good things done by the council so that we all take responsibility of the city,” added Mr Dube.

The project will be a relief for residents who have constantly complained about lack of safety because of absence of street lights.

Some residents have been attacked by wild animals while walking along dark streets.

Source: Victoria Falls gets new street lights (22/07/22)

Friday 22 July 2022

UNESCO Report Raises Concerns Over Controversial Zambian Hotel Development at Victoria Falls

A UNESCO report, due to be presented to the next meeting of the World Heritage Committee, warns that the Victoria Falls World Heritage Site "is facing increasing threats from individual and cumulative infrastructure developments" and concludes that the Outstanding Universal Values for which the Falls are globally recognised could be considered to be in danger if current development proposals - most notably the Zambian Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort development - proceed without the appropriate level of consideration for the environment.

Work started on the development in July 2020 with a ground-breaking ceremony held by then-President Edgar Lungu and has progressed rapidly, with the resort due to open before the end of this year (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, August 2020). 

Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort, Zambia

Mosi-oa-Tunya development (July 2022)

The report follows a UNESCO Reactive Monitoring Mission to the site, first requested in 2019 but delayed until February this year by the global pandemic. The objective of the mission was recorded as being to “assess the potential threat posed to the property’s OUV by the growing tourism development pressure in and around the property, the potential impacts of the Batoka Gorge Hydro Electric Scheme (BGHES), to review the regulations to control this pressure and to make recommendations to the Committee on the proposed boundary modification.”

The report was due to be presented to the World Heritage Committee at their June Conference, planned to be held in Russia but which was postponed at the last minute due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the Conference is still to be re-scheduled the report, which had been circulated to Zambia and Zimbabwe for information, has now entered the public domain and has been picked up by press and media in England, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort

The report is especially critical of the Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort development in Zambia, a development site with a controversial history. Development of the site was first proposed in 2006, resulting in a previous Reactive Monitoring Mission to the site, and resulting in a recommendation that “the site should be considered for inscription on the World Heritage in Danger List, if the project is approved for implementation.” The development was subsequently abandoned, before being resurrected in 2018. 

Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort

Site of Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort Development

The report highlights several areas of concern relating to the development, most notably confusion over whether the development was within the World Heritage Site, the surrounding Buffer Zone, or outside both these areas - and the subsequent implications for its approval by the Zambian Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA). (The site borders the boundary of the World Heritage Site and is thus clearly located within the Buffer Zone which surrounds the property.)

"Firstly, the ESIA states that 'the proposed project site is in a World Heritage Site which has to be protected'. The ZEMA decision letter however states that the 'project site is located near the Victoria Falls World Heritage Property buffer zone' (point 3.1.2) and that 'no construction shall be undertaken in the buffer area of the Victoria Falls World Heritage Site area' "

In addition the report raises further serious concerns over apparent infringements of the development guidelines approved by ZEMA, including issues with the protected riverside margin, which is supposed to be left undeveloped, and consideration of wildlife movements, including elephant, through the site. 

"Secondly, the decision letter specifies that the structures shall be constructed 'at least 70 metres from the highest flood line of the Zambezi and Maramba Rivers' (point 3.1.7). However, the construction appears to have been undertaken only in line with the ESIA that 'the developer will leave 50m from the edge of the river'. Data on the highest flood line was not made available to the mission and it is unclear whether such data have been collected. The mission determines however, based on presented information that the developer has not complied with this condition of approval.

"Thirdly, the letter states that 'site selection shall take the movement of animals into consideration and wildlife/animal corridors shall be avoided at all times, throughout the project cycle' (point 3.1.26). At the same time the letter also acknowledges that the site is an active wildlife area frequented by elephant and hippos, and that 'one of the corners of the project site is the confluence of the Zambezi and Maramba Rivers. Confluences are said to provide unique habitats which support important ecosystem functions and may even be biodiversity hotspots' (point 3.1.2). While noting that the project proposal has already been amended to reflect the condition of ZEMA that no fencing will be erected around the resort, the site selection would appear to be in contradiction to the aim to ensure the natural movement of wildlife, especially the area around the Maramba River, which is a known elephant corridor."

Despite UNESCO apparently believing the development had been amended to not include fencing, recent photographs of the development appear to show fences surrounding the riverside margins of the site.

In addition to these concerns, it appears the developer has constructed an additional floor to the main hotel building, which has been constructed with four levels, against the plans for a three-floor building approved by ZEMA.

"Fourthly, the ZEMA authorisation is given on the basis of the proposal in the ESIA that the 'hotel will have three floors that are: ground floor, first floor and second floor' and a building will have a height of 16.15m. However, the mission observed that the middle section of the building comprises four floors (see aerial image in figure 1). There is therefore a need to clarify whether the building, as constructed, is still within the approved height limit. 

Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort Development (April 2022)

The report concludes that the developers appear to have failed to comply with several of the conditions of approval for the construction and that ZEMA should consider the suspension of their approval of the project until the identified concerns are resolved. 

"Fifthly it requires that 'Mukuba Property Development Company Limited shall restrict construction activities to the dry season throughout the project cycle' (point 3.1.45). The mission visited the project site during the wet season in February 2022 and observed that the construction activities were actively taking place. Noting that the dry season is generally between July and December, it would appear that the developer has not complied with this condition of approval."

"Taking note of the provision in the ZEMA decision letter that the 'Agency may suspend or cancel the Decision Letter without notice should Mukuba Property Development Company Limited fail to comply with any condition of approval' (point 3.6), the mission considers that there are important gaps that should trigger at least the suspension of the project until the matters above are addressed. 

"The mission additionally observed other ecological modifications including artificial reinforcement of the embankment thereby altering the natural processes of erosion and deposition of the riverine system, but it appears that the impact of such alterations has not been considered. This further supports the mission’s view for the need to strengthen the environmental considerations through a revised ESIA."

The report goes on to make the following specific recommendations: 

"Suspend the construction and operation of the Mosi-oa-Tunya Livingston Resort, located within the buffer zone of the property in Zambia, until the legality of the project is verified in line with the conditions of approval issued by the Zambian Environmental Management Authority (ZEMA), which:

a) does not permit any construction within the World Heritage site buffer zone; and

b) requires a guaranteed minimum distance of 70 metres between the resort and the highest flood line of the Zambezi and Maramba Rivers.

"Continue the suspension of the Mosi-oa-Tunya Livingstone Resort development as a follow on from R1 until the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the project has been revised to adequately demonstrate that there will be no impact on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property including its conditions of integrity, in line with Committee Decision 44 COM 7B.177, and a comprehensive Environmental and Social Management Plan (ESMP) for the implementation of mitigation measures has been developed. Both the revised ESIA and ESMP should be submitted to the World Heritage Centre for review by IUCN before the project resumes, in the case that the legal suspension according to the compliance with the ZEMA conditions of approval is lifted."

It should be noted that the report has not been officially released by UNESCO (and may be subject to final amendment) and that it is the World Heritage Committee, when they finally meet for their rescheduled Conference, that will decide on whether or not to formally adopt the reports recommendations. 

In April 2021 Radisson Hotel Group announced that it would operate the management of the new hotel, to be called Radisson Blu Resort Mosi-oa-Tunya and that the resort was on track to open in late 2022 (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, April 2021). 

"Late 2022 will see Radisson gain a foothold at the Unesco World Heritage-listed Victoria Falls... The sustainability-focused resort... aims to obtain Edge green building certification as well as sign the Unesco Sustainable Tourism Pledge." (Top Hotel News, December 2021)

Construction of the hotel is believed to be progressing. 

Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort, Zambia

Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort Development (July 2022)

Download the report: 2022 World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring Mission Report.

Read more on the background to this development: Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs (August 2020) New Hotel Development Threatens Livingstone's Elephants

Read more on current wave of tourism developments which threaten Victoria Falls: Keep Victoria Falls Wild.