Urban Development and Wetland Conservation

Written by: Shamiso Ruzvidzo, Head of Exploration UNDP Accelerator Labs

June 10, 2020

Figure 1: Wetlands are home to many plants, animals, and insects

Coming off the tail end of World Environment Day held on Friday June 5 2020 under the theme 'Time for Nature,' which encourages worldwide awareness and action for the protection of the environment, you can’t help but reflect on wetlands conservation and how it affects your own Country.

World Bank figures show that around one-third of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people live in urban areas, and that its urban population is growing by about 2 percent annually. As more and more Zimbabweans migrate into urban centres from rural areas, informal settlements have started to dot themselves around the country as urban spaces become more and more populated. Rural to urban migration, as we know places increased pressure on local government's ability to respond to the social service needs of urban populations. One of the biggest pressures on social services is the pressure of space. This has given a rise in informal settlements being built on wetlands, and slowly but surely wetlands are disappearing from Zimbabwe (1,115 wetlands in Zimbabwe) largely due to human actions. We are also seeing an increase of land barons taking advantage of the COVID-19 lockdown to invade wetlands, as security and surveillance is at its minimal.

“Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent in the world with an expected 1.2 billion urban residents by 2050. The continent’s urbanisation comes with extraordinary transformativepotential, but the structural hurdles are equally huge”[1]

Swamps and marshes covered by water span the country. But you wouldn’t notice them, as slowly and creepingly fast houses of all sorts are mushrooming across these low-lying ponds. Wetlands are disappearing from Zimbabwe as a result of human actions, that should under normal circumstances not go unpunished. Iconic wetlands are being turned into residential areas, with some now a hive of commercial activities where service stations, housing communities and other business related facilities have taken over. This issue of wetlands is intricately linked to water and the destruction of wetlands hinders water supplies. As urban cities grow the demand for water rises, and competition between water for human consumption and agriculture is intensifying demand to a point that is no longer sustainable. Wetlands provide a vital resource in managing growing water demand, and also as a natural means of cleaning wastewater.

“They filter water by breaking down harmful pollutants including chemicals, separate them from the water, and use the chemicals as fertilizer for vegetation growing on the wetland. They are also natural sewage systems, filtering out waste and running clean water into rivers[2]”.

Figure 2: the many functions of wetlands include water filtering & supply, & huge economic benefits too.

In Harare alone, there are 30 wetlands under threat from illegal settlements, with under the radar realtors putting wetland stands on the market. If our wetlands remain unprotected, the effects will soon be irreverisble and this will be a big threat to society.  For conservation,  urban wetlands should be integrated into a city’s planning and development for preservation and restoration to be successful. However, the fact that they are not usually included within urban planning decisions makes their conservation and wise use a very challenging issue. So how can wetland conservation and wise use be part of urban planning?

Figure 3: Wetlands can improve water quality by removing pollutants from surface waters. Three pollutant removal processes provided by wetlands are particularly important: sediment trapping, nutrient removal and chemical detoxification .


“Zimbabwe is a signatory to the 1971 Ransar Convention on Wetlands. This gives the country an obligation to conserve wetlands that act as sponges that store water and act as flood controllers and carbon sinks that purify and supply water to water sources such as streams and dams. Several years after the convention was signed, Zimbabwe issued Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 providing for the protection of wetlands in line with the treaty”[4].

In partnership with the UNDP Innovation Unit, the Zimbabwe Accelerator Lab (Acclab) will explore new ways in which innovative governance of city-making (beyond traditional models of urban planning) can lead to  sustainable urban development, in ways that call into question established paradigms of planning and urban design. This poses an opportunity for the Acclab to explore what practical approaches are already being investigated or implemented in integrating wetlands and other nature-based solutions into planning.

In Nepal for example, “the Jagadishpur Wetland in the densely populated lowlands supplies water needed for irrigation and domestic use, benefiting 40,000 people. Through a community-based effort and support from Norway and the Ramsar Convention, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is working to ensure the site can effectively provide water for people. Simple steps have already resulted in significant improvements. By supporting constructive dialogue, the project has created a management structure that more effectively plans for irrigation

needs while keeping water in the wetland for the fish and plants that people use and depend on. This success has been enhanced by restoring the wetland’s ability to hold water”.[5]

If we can explore solutions which can provide alternative housing with possible incentives, this may be an opportunity to motivate people not to build on wetlands and support communities to conserve their wetlands as a joint citizen effort.

Figure 4: Informal settlements popping up during lockdown in Zimbabwe – Image courtesy of @263Chat



[3] https://dec.vermont.gov/watershed/wetlands/functions/water-quality


Young people from all over Zimbabwe were invited to submit proposals of products or services they have developed which are being used to mitigate and stop the spread of the coronavirus. Almost 200 applications were received from all over the country for various businesses including COVID19 apps, Whatsapp Bots, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), informative animated videos and e-learning platforms. Applications were reviewed by a panel of experts including the representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure that the products or services selected were viable for the market. The ten finalists are listed below: