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BirdLife lists threatened World Heritage Sites in Africa as UNESCO committee meets

As the two-week extended 44th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee commenced on Friday, July 16, 2021, BirdLife International has raised global attention to some World Heritage Sites in Africa under threat.

Kavango Region
The Okavango, Region of Kavango, Namibia. Photo credit: Zairon

The conservation body hopes that the intergovernmental body, which is responsible for making decisions regarding implementation of the World Heritage Convention, will at the meeting consider threats some of Africa’s most iconic protected areas are subjected to.

Okavango Delta and Tsodilo Hills

Canadian-based company, ReconAfrica, has been granted petroleum exploration licences in the “Kavango Basin” in Namibia and Botswana. It has commenced with the drilling of test wells in Namibia but has reportedly not yet undertaken the requisite Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in Botswana. Various gaps and concerns have been identified in respect of the EIAs underlying ReconAfrica’s current exploration efforts in Namibia, and the company has been criticised for its failure to implement appropriate impact mitigation measures.

The World Heritage Committee has said that oil and gas exploration and exploitation are incompatible with World Heritage status, and has called upon States Parties to make every effort to ensure that extractive companies located in their territory cause no damage to World Heritage properties.

Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls

The proposed Batoka Gorge Hydro Electric Scheme would be constructed on the Zambezi River, downstream of Victoria Falls. There are numerous concerns associated with this project, amongst these are that its reservoir would inundate part of the Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls World Heritage Site, resulting in the permanent submergence of a rare and unique habitat; and that it would constrain breeding opportunities for cliff-nesting raptors for which Batoka Gorge is an important breeding site.

The Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) for this project have reportedly failed to adequately assess its potential impact on the site’s Outstanding Universal Value and said to have disregarded a previous decision of the World Heritage Committee that “construction of dams with large reservoirs within the boundaries of World Heritage Properties is incompatible with their World Heritage status”.

Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas

The proposed site for the Kangaluwi opencast copper mine falls entirely within Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park. In addition to the devastating impacts that the mine would have on this park itself, conservationists are deeply concerned about its potential negative impacts on Mana Pools National Park – a World Heritage Site located approximately 30 kilometres away in Zimbabwe.

Any failure of the mine’s tailing storage facility or abnormal discharge of effluence would be expected to negatively impact the World Heritage Site, according to experts. The Zambian Environmental Management Agency’s initial decision to reject this project was reversed on appeal in 2014. The most recent legal challenge to this decision was dismissed on procedural grounds in early 2021 and the project’s ESIA approval has been extended, opening the way for mining to commence. The World Heritage Committee has previously urged Zambia not to proceed with the project and is expected to reiterate this call at its meeting.

In a reaction, Ken Mwathe, Policy and Communications Coordinator, BirdLife Africa, said: “BirdLife International in Africa supports development as evidenced by our work to empower local communities economically in 25 African countries. However, development must proceed in a manner that does not harm the most iconic sites the continent has. Protected areas should be out of bounds for oil and gas and other major developments. I call upon governments to take action to protect them.”

Motshereganyi Virat Kootsositse, Director, BirdLife Botswana: “BirdLife Botswana is concerned about the pending development of proposed prospecting of oil drilling in the vicinity of the Okavango Delta by ReconAfrica. It is now public knowledge that the government of Botswana has accorded ReconAfrica an oil prospecting licence in the North-western part of the country in the Kavango Basin near the Tsodilo Hills.  It seems many of the communities on the ground are not fully aware of the pending happenings.

“It is the position of BirdLife Botswana that if this prospecting is to occur there must be a thorough EIA undertaken to ascertain the extent to which this prospecting will affect biodiversity and most importantly the integrity of the Tsodilo Hills as one of the World Heritage Sites. Without EIA, we run the risk of having irreversible socio- economic and environmental repercussions.”

Julia Pierini, CEO, BirdLife Zimbabwe: “Across the planet, governments are working on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework that augments the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 which is an ambitious plan to implement broad-based action to bring about a transformation in society`s relationship with biodiversity and to ensure that, by 2050, the shared vision of living in harmony with nature is fulfilled.

“Permitting mining in the Zambezi Valley which comprises the Lower Zambezi National Park and the Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas WHS – an intact wilderness and biodiversity hotspot that encompasses the evolutionary and ecological processes that sustain life – is contrary to this vision.

“The impact of mining in the area will be catastrophic as the resulting air, noise and water pollution, the disturbance from infrastructure development are totally incompatible with any efforts to conserve this significant biodiversity. This decision that favours short term gain through single use destructive abstraction over conserving vital ecological processes that have evolved over millennia is fundamentally flawed and consequently the decision to allow mining in the area should be reversed with immediate effect.”

Dr Melissa Lewis, Policy & Advocacy Programme Manager, BirdLife South Africa: “BirdLife South Africa is collaborating closely with other members of the BirdLife partnership to monitor and respond to the development threats to some of southern Africa’s most iconic World Heritage Sites. We are deeply concerned by the apparent trend in Africa of development applications being prepared and approved with little or no consideration of potential negative impacts on these sites’ Outstanding Universal Value. We therefore welcome the draft decisions currently before the World Heritage Committee, and we strongly urge all African States Parties to fully comply with their obligations towards the protection and sustained conservation of the world’s natural and cultural heritage.”

Imakando Crispin Sinyama, Chairperson, BirdWatch Zambia: “BirdWatch Zambia alongside BirdLife Zimbabwe and BirdLife South Africa has been committed to try and reverse the decision for the development of the Batoka Gorge project downstream of the Victoria Falls. There are currently another two planned Hydro Electric Power Stations in the planning and development stages on the Zambezi River – one at the source of the Zambezi and the other at Ngonye Falls. Additionally, tourism activities contribute to pollution of the ecosystem potentially threatening livelihoods of local communities.

“The further destruction to the natural flow of the river and its surrounding habitat needs to be avoided at all costs. Kangaluwi Copper Mine is situated in Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia across the river from Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. Although the proposed mine is set back from the river, the problem with effluent runoff still remains as well as disturbance to the National Park where it is situated. “BirdWatch is very concerned that political and financial pressures have and will erode the effective supervision of this mining operation which is not just near but is actually within the boundary of a National Park. This will make it very difficult to ensure that the mine does not cause degradation to the Zambezi Valley and River below the site.”

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