Confront fish disease outbreak regionally

There are already some formal arrangements between Zimbabwe and Zambia, who co-own the Kariba Dam, and ad hoc arrangements, especially between Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to minimize damage and maximize benefits when spilling water from the Kariba, Kafue and Cahora Bassa dams.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that something far more comprehensive is needed, and that this is a good time to put a new system in place.

There is a terrible warning from Europe, where the Rhine and Danube cross a number of countries. No one did anything for centuries as the rivers became more and more polluted and no one really cared what happened downstream.

It was only when the lower Rhine actually caught fire in the Netherlands in the middle of the last century that a start was made on creating a proper multinational management system. And now those two rivers are among the cleanest and best managed of any in the developed world.

Up to now development of the core of the basin has been light. Most of the water comes from rain falling in the upper Zambezi, in Angola and western Zambia.

But even the modest agricultural development in those areas, and the associated bush and forest clearance, has seen a change in river flows and flood patterns.

With peace in Angola and Zambia committed to boosting agricultural production, there are likely to be even more changes.

Many of these can be managed. Angolans and Zambians must be allowed to develop their countries and increase food production. But with careful planning it should be possible to have both development and minimal damage to the river and its basin.

Ever larger cities in the basin, new towns, new factories and the like are all going to have an impact. If Harare had not started 30 years ago cleaning up its waste water a lot better than it had been doing, that city’s waste would flow straight into Cahora Basa, to be joined by waste from the second largest city in the basin, Lusaka, as it came down the Kafue.

Since all eight countries in the basin, or with territory in the basin, are also members of SADC it seems that any future Zambezi Basin Management Authority could well be formed under the SADC auspices.

SADC has shown itself remarkably flexible in expanding its roles and taking on new responsibilities. Just as important, SADC is very good at keeping bureaucracies small, just big enough to co-ordinate the teams of “doers” in each country.

SADC states between them have the experts in land and fisheries management, disease control, water management and development planning.

What is needed is some sort of formal framework whereby these experts can communicate with each other, create a master plan and form the joint teams needed when necessary to cope with specific problems or disasters.

The fish disease outbreak is a good example. The scientists have started talking to each other, largely because the senior scientists at least have met at conferences and know each other. But there is no formal arrangement for them to put together a transnational plan to cope with the menace and no formal arrangement to get the eight countries to implement any such plan.

Good sense across the region will no doubt allow the countries to cope, but the cost is likely to be higher and the effort required greater than if there had already been in place a monitoring organization able to put together a research team in days and a scheme to implement the recommendations of that team quickly.

Many problems are easy to solve when small, but are far more difficult and expensive when allowed to grow.

With this warning shot across the bows of the basin countries, we hope that they will agree soon to start the process of creating a transnational authority that can monitor, research and plan the basin and its rivers.

It will probably be worthwhile to look at what Europe has created for the Rhine and Danube, and while Africa’s problems are far different at least a close examination of how those rivers are managed will spark debate so that the final framework for managing the Zambezi will be better.

December 2006
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