Wetlands and the Harare Water Crisis

By Birdlife Zimbabwe


Water is vital for life.

Wetlands are essential in providing clean, safe water. Harare is running out of water.
Wetlands manage water within the hydrological cycle. Wetlands cannot exist without the flora and fauna adapted to live in them. They are symbiotic. Together they manage water.
Wetlands perform many functions and services including water retention, water purification and flood control. The wetlands or vleis of Harare consist of seasonally inundated open grassland wetlands whose biodiversity is amongst the richest in the world. It is this critical biodiversity that works freely both above and below the ground in order to provide water. The value of biodiversity is generally not factored into water management by responsible authorities. Often these wetlands are overlooked as the water is hidden by the grasses during the wet summer months.
Harare’s location high up on the Mashonaland Plateau is remarkable because it is built within its own water catchment. The city is situated on the watershed where the headwater wetlands lie alongside scattered miombo woodland covered hills which together create the streams feeding downstream into the Upper Manyame River, the Gwebi and the Mazowe Rivers.

Simply put, Harare is sitting squarely on top of its water source. This awkward location means all land use in Harare also determines both the quality and quantity of water flowing into our water supply dams downstream from where it is pumped back up to the city. Disturbance of the wetlands on the watershed in Harare results in biodiversity loss which in turn leads to soils being washed downstream causing siltation of streams, rivers and dams. Lake Chivero has already lost 20% of its water holding capacity to siltation. However, this biodiversity can be restored if the wetlands can be secured. A model has been developed in Harare that is successful in restoring wetlands.   Orange-breasted Waxbill in Monavale Vlei Ramsar Site  

The City of Harare’s policy of densification is a major driver of population growth in the city. Consequently, there is limited space left for development. This has resulted in rampant encroachment into the wetlands. Increased industrial activity on wetlands and the rapid degradation of the wetlands from city wide cultivation means water run-off is restricted to polluted summer rainfall. Successive droughts have further aggravated the situation resulting in inadequate provision of water to the city’s thirsty population.
In an effort to alleviate the shortage of water supply to the city, hundreds of thousands of private boreholes have been drilled. Water is being taken out of the ground much faster than it can be replaced. The water table has dropped drastically. Harare has few options for water availability as wetland ecosystems of the

catchments downstream are also being degraded creating similar challenges for proposed dams. Against the backdrop of an ever-growing population requiring water and livelihoods, this paints a frightening picture.

This recipe for disaster is happening now.
      Umwindsi Catchment – The Grange – 2000         Umwindsi Catchment 2018 – 40% loss     SUMMARY AND CURRENT STATUS OF HARARE’S WETLANDS – JULY 2020
1. Harare’s wetlands are critical to the future sustainable development of the city.
2. Wetlands form a vital part of the water supply infrastructure for Harare and many other urban centers.
3. Wetlands in Harare have already been greatly reduced in extent and the remaining portions extensively degraded.
4. Despite specific legislation to protect wetlands introduced during 2007, about half of all wetlands have been lost since this time through conversion to development.
5. This is adversely affecting the supply of surface and groundwater for Harare.
6. The problem is continuing – currently there are more than 250 sites where there are recent or ongoing developments on wetlands.
7. It is critical that remaining wetland areas should be kept free of development and agriculture, restored to their natural state and specifically managed for water production.
8. Failure to address this situation will directly enhance future water problems in the city.


Birdlife Zimbabwe has spearheaded the conservation of the Monavale Vlei Ramsar site, Marlborough Wetlands and Driefontein Grasslands wetlands for decades to ensure wetland bird species retain their specialist habitats. BLZ has considerable experience and institutional capacity in managing conservation projects. 

Together with other residents` associations (Borrowdale Residents and Ratepayers Trust, Conservation Society of Monavale, Ballantyne Conservation Trust), BLZ is a founder member of the Harare Wetlands Trust which is a locally registered Trust representing a coalition of resident associations and Community based Organizations of Harare who have identified a common issue of concern i.e. water scarcity and who have rallied together to work with Local Authorities and Government to protect Harare`s primary source of water, its wetlands. Their mission and overall goal is to work with all stakeholders to advance the protection and preservation of wetlands, and to secure them as a pre-requisite for sustainable water provisioning within the Harare Metropolitan Province.
We urgently need your support and your voice.

No wetlands = No water

Credits for maps and information to:
Dorothy Wakeling, COSMO
Dr Ian Games
Dr Rob Cunliffe
    Monavale Wetland – a model of a restored wetland  

Birdlife Zimbabwe champions the conservation of natural ecosystems for the benefit of Man and Nature.

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