This river of green was a near disaster for this Zambian River system.
Updated: Feb 4, 2019
And so perhaps I should continue with the story of the boat. Once I started on my new job at Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ), I had NO clue what awaited me at the river. Firstly, I had never ridden a motor boat before (I had ridden a canoe and that’s totally different). Secondly, nothing had quite prepared me for my work on the river in the months that ensued.
I started my role after a briefing session from a lovely French Canadian colleague and direct manager, François. I listened intently and he brought together a small team from within ECZ to provide some guidance as to what my role would be and introduce me to the team I would be working with. I was an eager learner and a fast one at that.
Following my orientation, I learnt that a menace of an invasive weed called Water Hyacinth (a plant originally from Latin America) was wreaking havoc in the Kafue River not far from Lusaka. The project site was in Kafue Town along the river. Pretty close to this site was a fertilizer factory called Nitrogen Chemicals of Zambia – a location that looked like you were in Gotham City, at night (all lit up). You see this river isn’t a small river flowing sluggishly. It is the main tributary to the Zambezi River. Two of Zambia’s main Hydro-electricity Dams are located on this river, supplying some much-needed energy beyond the borders of Zambia – to Angola, Congo DR, Mozambique and even Botswana.
Hence I showed up at the river – ready!!! All set to see this menace of a weed and figure out what guidance I could provide as a biologist. Nothing nor no one quite prepared me for the real situation on the ground.
Perhaps a short Geography lesson: the Kafue River flows within the borders of Zambia with its source somewhere on the Copperbelt Province of Zambia. As it flows towards the south of the country, it reaches a floodplain systems (the size of Switzerland) called the Kafue Flats. This flood plain, fully flooded covers an area of about 6,500 square kilometers. Viewed from an aerial vantage, its spectacular when flooded. Prior to the river reaching the floodplain it enters an artificial reserve called Itezhi-tezhi Dam. The water continues, via the plains flowing further south-east, and about 200 kilometers downstream entering another reserve (this time a Hydro-electric generating dam) called Kafue Gorge.
So in 1996 now fulltime on the role as a biologist, I had some serious introspection on remembering my Biology class 101. For the first time in my life, the theory became reality fairly quickly. I understood what possible ecological disasters could look like.
You see by the time I had started my new role, a lot was happening on the ground. I put together an interdisciplinary team because I realized that the management of tis weed need more than one specialization. It further became evident that the weed was wreaking more than havoc – it was being sucked into the turbines at Kafue Gorge Dam causing over-heating. This over-heating resulted in limited generation of electricity (simplistically put) and the impact countrywide was dire. The electricity company experimented with metal booms to try and prevent the weed from entering the turbines. It turned out to be a temporary measure because the sheer weight of this weed bent the metal. it was crazy to witness all this and I was shocked actually.
So in early 1997 the then Zambian President, Mr. Chiluba, following a guided flight around the affected area, declared water hyacinth a national disaster.
We really had to do something about it. It was evident that the weed thrived due to high levels of pollution in the river. But it was also getting spread to other parts of the river because fishermen harvested it to cover and cool the fish they had caught. Strangely I had also seen the plant being sold as an ornamental plant along many streets of Lusaka. There was simply NO environmental education about the dangers of this plant.
I was quite mortified to learn later that some communities along the river had been cut off due to this river of green. Fishermen suffered trying to navigate a blocked river channels and also the infestation also brought about other problems – snakes. I remember once while steering the boat, a colleague slowly standing (not wanting to scream and scare me into falling into the river) just said: Musonda, I just need to remove something crawling in your direction. With the engine noise, I just heard snippets of this info – something…crawl. By the time I realized what had happed, a slender green snake was floating away into the river. I screamed!!!
But the experience was just amazing and totally worthwhile. And so my interest and love of wetlands began.