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Review of State of the Environment in the Zambezi Basin 2000


By William Banham

State of the Environment in the Zambezi Basin 2000.  ed. Munyaradzi Chenje.  Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, 2000.  pp 334, ISBN 1779100094.  £23.95 (pb.).

[Distributed by African Books Collective Ltd., 27 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1HU]

The Zambezi Basin, draining an area of approximately 1.385 million square kilometres within eight southern African states (Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe), represents one of Africa’s most important ecosystems.  With a human population of just under 40 million, consisting of 30 ethnic groups (a third of which are in Zambia), the Basin is a vital source of energy, agricultural, industrial and tourism resources within the region.  A large part of the Basin (41%) lies within Zambia, where the Zambezi River rises in the north-western part of the country before beginning its long journey out to the Indian Ocean in Mozambique.  Arguably, however, the importance of the Basin is even greater in a country like Malawi where 93% of the country is within the ecosystem, particularly when compared to countries such as Tanzania and Namibia, which only include the ecosystem at its margins.

Following on the call for improved communication of environmental information that arose from the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, this volume (an output from the SADC Communicating the Environment Programme) attempts, for the first time in southern Africa, to report on an assessment of a single ecosystem in order to enhance the prospects for regional cooperation and ultimately the sustainable development of the Basin’s resources.

The result of a participatory process, in keeping with its stated aims, the book presents an overview of the current state of the Zambezi Basin’s ecological, social and economic resources.  The 13 chapters are divided into three sections.  The first section (including chapters 1 to 4 on a regional overview, physical and climatic features, water and wetland resources, and biodiversity) provides background information on the Basin’s physical and human resources.  The second section (chapters 5 to 12 on agriculture, industry, energy, tourism, pollution, poverty, gender, and environmental management and regional cooperation) covers the prevalent social and environmental management issues in the area.  The final section (chapter 13) looks at the trends and scenarios for the future.  Surprisingly, there is no executive summary included in this volume as this has been published as a separate document.

The book contains a wealth of useful and fascinating information, for instance the fact that per capita CO2 emissions in Mozambique are around 75 times less than in neighbouring South Africa and over 200 times less than for the USA.  However, as with all such attempts to report on the status of the environment, especially for areas as large as the Zambezi Basin, the information presented here is somewhat patchy, generalised and, to some extent, out-of-date almost as soon as it is published.  In the case of the Zambezi Basin, this is as much due to the fact that the environment is changing rapidly as it is to the fact that gathering up-to-date data for the region, where data collection is still limited and under funded, is an almost impossible task.  Much of the data presented comes from the early to mid-nineties, some of it even earlier.  In addition to the problem of up-to-date data, the other problem (acknowledged in the Introduction) is the lack of data collected on an ecosystem basis as opposed to a national or sectoral basis.  As a result, much of the data is either incomplete or stuck together unconvincingly in a best attempt to represent the ecosystem-based focus of the book.  However, what data is available is presented in an attractive and accessible way (although I would challenge anyone to distinguish between the various shades of blue and brown used in many of the maps) and a number of case studies add some interesting context to the figures and tables.

The great value of a book such as this, being one of the first of its kind, is to promote the idea of considering the management of resources on the basis of natural ecological boundaries instead of artificial (and in this case colonial) political boundaries and it is to be hoped that the book will encourage future data collection and planning on this basis.  To what extent the presentation of the data in this volume will actually lead to greater cooperation and the implementation of sustainable development strategies within the Zambezi Basin remains to be seen but the authors should be congratulated for setting the ball rolling and achieving at least one of their aims, namely to highlight and flag the issues facing the future of this critical ecosystem.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 64 (2001), pp. 104-105]

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