Threats to the Zambezi River Basin

The Zambezi River is Southern Africa’s “River of Life”, but the Zambezi River Basin is an ecosystem under extreme threat. One of the most diverse and valuable resources in Africa, covering 1.4 million km2 and home to more than 30 million people, the Basin plays a critical role in the economies of eight countries. The Zambezi River Basin is an area of outstanding beauty and opportunity which flows through the world’s largest conservation area, and over the world’s largest waterfall: Victoria Falls. In this basin you will find the world’s second largest wildebeest migration, the largest population of elephants on earth, the largest population of wild cheetahs in Southern Africa as well as several hundred species of fish, and nearly 750 species of birds in Zambia alone. There are 16 species of butterfly that are found only in the Zambezi River Basin.

But conservation is precarious: the global demand for rhino horn saw black rhinos declared extinct in Zambia in 1998, although a reintroduction programme has re-established 30+ black rhinos in Zambia, a far cry from the 12,000 population that existed 40 years ago. The Zambezi River Basin is home to the Pangolin, the world’s most trafficked mammal, which has now been given full protection under CITES. In the last 16 years Zimbabwe has lost more than 85% of its cheetah population. Eight Zambezi Basin floodplains are designated as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar convention, and the middle Zambezi Valley is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The Zambezi River Basin is also important for agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing, mining, tourism and hydroelectric power. The hydroelectric power stations on the Zambezi river, and its tributaries, provide power to Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

Demand for power will increase in line with a population growth that is expected to reach 47 million by 2025, and which will inevitably lead to greater encroachment on conservation areas.

This is an area also under threat from the interruption of water flow by damming; industrial pollution; over fishing; excessive water extraction and extreme climate variability causing a cycle of floods and droughts that have devastating effects on people. The 2015/16 droughts were the worst on record and led to severe food insecurity and economic loss in large parts of the Zambezi River Basin. Climate change is forecast to reduce water availability, through evaporation and reducing rainfall, by up to 30% over the next 30 years. This in turn reduces water levels needed for power production, and increases demands for more hydroelectric dams which further interrupts the natural flow of the water.

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