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The race to save one of the world's seven wonders

October 03, 2022
tags:#Victoria Falls, #Zimbabwe, #Zambia, #Africa
located:Zimbabwe, Zambia
by:Cyril Zenda
The world’s largest waterfall is at risk of losing its World Heritage Status status as development projects desecrate its pristine environment.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has expressed concerns that the world-acclaimed Victoria Falls - located at between Zambia and Zimbabwe alone the Zambezi River- could lose its World Heritage Site status if the two countries continue with development projects in the vicinity of the falls. 

Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is the world’s largest sheet of falling water, spanning 1.7 kilometers and dropping 108 meters into a gorge. It is the main tourism draw-card for both countries, where visitors can enjoy sightseeing, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, boat cruises and game viewing, among other activities.

The UNESCO-designated site extends over 6,860 hectares. It comprises 3,779 hectares of Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, 2,340 hectares of Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls National Park and 741 hectares of the riverine strip of Zambezi National Park in Zimbabwe.

This trans-boundary tourist attraction is jointly administered by the Zambia Wildlife Authority (Zawa) and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks).

Recently, both sides of the falls have seen extensive construction activity, with plans at advanced stages to build a hydroelectric power station, a 300-bed hotel complex, a cricket stadium and a golf course, among other developments.

It is this over-development within and around this environmentally sensitive territory that has prompted the UN to raise a red flag, warning that the site risks desecration.

In a process known as delisting, UNESCO can strip a site of its World Heritage Site status it considers that it is not being properly managed and protected.

The Controversial Projects

Earlier this year, two companies posted advertisements in the media signaling their plans to embark on commercial developments within the designated site. 

Victoria Dream, a private company linked to Chinese nationals Feng Xiwo Feng and Zhou Zhonggou, used the advert to invite partners to develop three sites within the World Heritage Site. The company claimed ownership of three pieces of land through what it called "strategic long-term lease agreements with stakeholders such as ZimParks."

The most controversial of these sites is the riverine Victoria Island, a 13.5-hectare stretch of land just a short distance upstream from the falls. 

"Due to the exclusive site location, rates can be charged from [USD] $2,000 per night ensuring that investment costs can be quickly returned," reads the advertisement, referring to the lodges that the firm is planning to build on the island.

Another company, Zambezi Crescent, a tourism company that runs the Victoria Falls River Lodge, also puts out an advertisement commercialising the Cataract Island, which is located at the very tip of the waterfalls and has been the only area within their immediate vicinity that is inaccessible to tourists due to conservation concerns.

Meanwhile, Dubai-based billionaire Nawab Shaji Ul Mulk has reportedly made proposals to build a cricket stadium in Victoria Falls, and cross the river on the Zambian side, the 300-bed Radisson Blu Mosi-oa-Tunya Resort is nearing construction.

Then there is the proposed $4 billion Batoka Gorge Hydropower Scheme, which is jointly owned by Zambia and Zimbabwe and is set for construction some 47 kelometres downstream of this world spectacle.

'Genuine Threat To The Falls'

In February this year, UNESCO had sent a monitoring team to assess the status of the Mosi-oa-Tunya/ Victoria Falls in view of these ongoing and proposed developments.

A decision is yet to be made, but ZimParks is on record as dismissing the delisting possibility as "baseless and marred by gross speculation."

However, environmental practitioners are gravely concerned about the developments taking place in the restricted zones that make up UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.

"The erection of buildings on the ecologically rich islands upstream of the Victoria Falls, the commercialisation of the pristine Cataract Island by Zambezi Crescent, the Batoka Gorge project and other on-going and proposed projects are genuine threats to the falls’ prestigious status," said Fauna and Flora Zimbabwe director Fidelicy Nyamukondiwa. 

"Development is welcome only if it is ecologically sustainable," Nyamukondiwa added. "Natural wonders of the world are natural. Pristine islands at Victoria Falls must remain natural. The proposed new lodges and restaurants will pollute the already threatened World Heritage Site. The state must jealously protect the falls.

"After all, every person has a constitutional right to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations."

"The state must jealously protect the falls."

Environmentalists File Lawsuit

Meanwhile, these same development plans that are the source of worry for UNESCO are also subject of a lawsuit by a group of environmental activists that want them terminated.

"The purpose of this application is to prevent the development of commercial interest at the cataract and rainforest sites, which developments would only suit the commercial operators and would negatively impact on the global aesthetic perspective of the Falls," reads part of the application filed by Lawrence Benjamin Norton, environmental activists and nine other entities.

"The risk is too great to the applicants and the Zimbabwean public as regards a crucial environmental area of our country, and accordingly, this application is filed in the public interest," state the court papers that cite the investment firms and ZimParks and other government agencies as respondents.

'Embarrassing Violation Of Laws'

Amid the on-going tussle, questions are raised as to whether the governments of the two economically embattled southern African nations can heed UNESCO's warning and halt these projects, considering most of them are owned and/or funded by Chinese and Middle Eastern tycoons whose governments these countries are heavily indebted to.

The Chinese and several heir Middle Eastern governments have been known to flex their financial muscles in order to arm-twist African governments to bend laws in a way that would suit their interests. In the case of Zimbabwe, they have been accused of wanton land-grabbing and opening mines in environmentally-sensitive areas.

Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Natural Resources Governance - a Zimbabwean natural resources watchdog, told FairPlanet that Zimbabwe is too beholden to these foreign governments to stop the controversial projects.

"With regard to Zimbabwe, there is an element of state capture by the Chinese to an extent our government embarrassingly allows the Chinese to violate our laws with impunity," Maguwu said in an interview.

"Only citizen actions can strengthen the government to resist some of these projects, as was the case with mining in the Hwange National Park."

Image by Sammy Wong.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Zimbabwe Zambia
Embed from Getty Images
The world-acclaimed Victoria Falls could lose its World Heritage Site status if construction projects in their vicinity are allowed to persist.
Embed from Getty Images
Both sides of the falls have seen extensive construction activity.
Embed from Getty Images
"Every person has a constitutional right to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations."
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