THE world’s largest sheet of falling water – the Victoria Falls, is under pressure.

Its World Heritage status is under threat as the commercial push for profits begins to weigh in against environmental concerns.

Conservationists see the scheduled opening this September of the Radisson Blu Mosi-oa-Tunya Livingstone Resort as yet another 'nail in the coffin' for this natural wonder.  

Prior to implementation, it was essential to adequately assess the potential impacts of infrastructure developments on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the Victoria Falls, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO).

The world body defines OUV as “cultural or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”  

Over two million tourists visit the falls every year, spending over $600 million per year in Zambia and Zimbabwe. But this was not always the case. More people have visited the falls in the last 33 years than the 50-years prior.

This is because in December 1989, the United Nations ’World Heritage Committee added the Victoria Falls to the World Heritage List and declared it one of the Seven Wonders of the world. The reasons for this declaration are that the Victoria Falls is the world's greatest sheet of falling water, is significant worldwide for its exceptional geological, geomorphological features and active land formation with outstanding beauty.

Joining the World Heritage list gave the Victoria Falls visibility through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO), marketing, attracted studies, funding and the Falls became the property of all human beings.

Zambia generates around $820 million from the tourism sector, or 3.9% of its the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Livingstone, home oft he Victoria Falls, contributes over 70% of tourism revenue.

However, UNESCO, the United Nations arm in charge of world heritage sites, has warned that it will de-list the Victoria Falls from the World Heritage list as commercial developments are negatively affecting the “integrity” of the site.

Zambia and Zimbabwe have advanced plans of building a golf course, lodges and a hydroelectric dam near the Victoria Falls, which has displeased the UN.

UNESCO officials who visited the site in July noted in their report that there are "inconsistencies in the use of precise boundaries and buffer zones" with regard to plans by authorities in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

They also observed “with utmost concern the increasing tourism infrastructure development pressure within and around the property, including the construction of the Mosi-oa-Tunya Livingstone Resort Hotel within the buffer zone of the property, contrary to the request to abandon the proposal.”

The UNESCO team also called for a halt to the building of a 300-bed hotel complex on the Zambian side by NAPSA, a quasi-government institution, in partnership with Radisson Blu. However, the resort is now complete, awaiting its opening soon. The Zimbabwean government has also announced plans of more development in Victoria Falls Town in an effort to have the town upgraded to city status.

Livingstone based conservationist, who is also former National Heritage and Conservation Commission (NHCC) Executive Director, Donald Chikumbi has warned that Zambia and Zimbabwe will face serious shunning, with negative consequences, from the international community if the Victoria Falls loses its World Heritage Status.

Chikumbi, in an interview with MakanDay, warns of negative repercussions that could also affect the Barotse Floodplains, whose listing to the World Heritage list, has reached review status.

“First of all, there are very few listings of African sites on the World Heritage List, it would be a shame if the list reduces further,” Chiumbi said. “For the Victoria Falls, there are two aspects to the site as a natural wonder. The first one is the curtain of water and the second are the gorges that stretch up to Songwe in Chief Mukuni’s area.”

He explained that the visibility that UNESCO gave the Falls has led to numerous studies by global scholars, that “attract attention and funding.”

Chikumbi added that before December 1989, there were very few tourists visiting Livingstone and that the same applied to investments in the city.

“The declaration added value to the site and today we have more people visiting the falls per year than the period of 1964 to 1989,”he said. “Secondly, the falls has cultural significance. These were not known globally until the declaration was made. That is why even the building of the Royal Livingstone Hotel by Sun International was not allowed to go beyond a certain point. The building would have affected the cultural significance if it were allowed to be built as originally planned. There have been understudies about the cultural significance.”

Chikumbi stated that tribes around the Victoria Falls had oral history describing a long record of African knowledge of the site, giving it cultural importance. The chiefdoms housing the Victoria Falls, Sekute and Mukuni, both have traditional shrines around the site.

 He also pointed out the aspect of retaining the natural beauty of the Falls.

“I am sure you remember that the late Errol Hickey (former Zambia National Tourists Board Chairperson) mounted some lights at the Falls. That disturbed the beauty as well as the eco system. Some species were negatively affected. So, we fought for the Falls to remain natural and within a month, those lights were removed.

UNESCO is also in the process of adding the Ngulu ceremony of Barotse floodplains to the World Heritage List. The UN has recognized the cultural land scape of Barotse. This will attract a lot of research. Remember Mongu is a climate center for Zambia. So, if we are removed from the list, this will also be affected and Zambia will face a lot of hostility from the international community.”

Chikumbi also pointed out that Zambia and Zimbabwe receive funding from the World Heritage Fund, to take care of the surrounding of the Falls area; to ensure that no one cuts down trees and to maintain the site’s integrity, and protection from scavengers.

UNESCO also has a student program at the Victoria Falls that has attracted scholars and scientists. Professor Bizeck Phiri of the University of Zambia did a full professorship studying plants at the Falls, Chikumbi disclosed.

“There is a small plant that is found nowhere else in the world that Professor Phiri was studying. There are also other plants that are unique to the heritage site. We cannot afford to lose these. Yes, development is very important but it should not be at the expense of our world heritage sites,” Chikumbi warned.

“Once we lose the world heritage status, the same international community that gave us the special status will de-market us. And believe me, westerners and people in general, believe what they read. So once the status is lost, even the common person will start believing that the falls is not the same. Yes, tourists will come but the value of the site will reduce and it won’t get the importance it now enjoys. It is important to remember that the site is owned by all humanity not just Zambians and Zimbabweans. And also remember that this is not the only falls that was shortlisted for the title. There are a lot of spectacular water falls in places like Brazil. Those countries would like their sites to get on the list. You don’t hear of those waterfalls now but once listed, you will definitely hear of them.”

He said any development in the falls area is a threat to the special status and that it did not add special value to the place.

He advised the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe to properly justify to UNESCO, how they intend to maintain the integrity of the falls.

“So, the government should answer how they will ensure that the values remain intact and that integrity is maintained.” Added Chikumbi.

He said Oman was a good example of what could happen once deregistered from the heritage list.

Oman had Arabian Oryx antelopes that were unique to the country but they found oil and gas in the park that housed them and UNESCO pleaded with them for years to maintain the gardens. From 1996 Oman was warned of delisting until 2007. The oryx population has since reduced from 450 to only four breeding pairs.

Responding to a press query, Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs and Heritage Minister, Kazembe Kazembe said he was not aware of any proposed commercial activities near Victoria Falls.

“I am not aware of the project. If indeed the project is on the cards I trust your concerns will have been considered during the design. The heritage will certainly be protected,” he said.

Also expressing ignorance on the proposed development is Zimbabwe Environment and Management Agency communications officer Joyce Chapungu.

“We have not received any documentation for these proposed developmental projects to enable us to do any environmental impact assessment exercise in order to ascertain how these projects would affect the concerned district,” she stated in response to a press query.

MakanDay has requested comment from the Ministry of Tourism and the NHCC, but by press time neither had responded.

Photos: Brenda Zulu