MANZINI, Eswatini

Petros Mnisi’s ambition to compete with other big commercial farmers by producing more vegetables like green mealies, cabbages, and tomatoes along the Black Mbuluzi river was impeded this year by the river’s falling water level.

Mnisi is a small commercial farmer who grows vegetables downstream at Bumbeni kaShewula along the Black Mbuluzi river.

The river is one of Eswatini’s major perennial waterways that supply water to the Mnjoli and Sand River Dams which irrigate the kingdom’s “green gold” sugarcane plantations. The EU is a major importer of Swazi sugar.

“The river has greatly changed from what it was when we were young,” Mnisi recalled. “The water has decreased, disposal of diapers and invasive plants continue to clog the river banks. We used to have indigenous trees like Fig trees, but not anymore.

“At times the water would stink and I am sure that has to do with the sugar factory upstream,” he complained, as countries around the globe mark World Rivers Day.

Wildlife-human conflict

Nevertheless, Mnisi noted that conflict between humans and wildlife was another phenomenon that has hampered his farming dream, with hippos often destroying his crops. “I have finally given up using the land next to the river,” he said, visibly disappointed and added: “Summer or winter, the problem is the same, these hippos don’t let us rest.”

According to Mnisi, in 2011, he had a good harvest as the giant mammals would only venture occasionally to human-populated areas, causing no serious damage to crops. “Those days, they would go upstream and come back in winter. But, from 2016 to last year, they caused a lot of chaos and damage.”

The manager of Eswatini’s National Trust Commission’s conservation program, known as transfrontier, Seth Maphalala Maphala, also confirmed the “bad state” of the rivers.

He explained that large mammals like hippos venture into lower regions to escape the low temperatures of the highlands, adding that the construction of dams also prevented wild animals from their natural migrations.

“These dams prevent the mammals’ movement and that disturbs the river ecosystem. They migrate in search of food and to nurture their young ones. Also, there are plants and small animals that depend on the hippos’ droppings. They open pathways for fish to enable them to lay eggs and help other animals to have access to the river system. If the hippos don’t migrate, we lose such services,” said Maphalala.

He explained that though the animals were able to survive hostile habitats, dams limited their migration, exposing them to severe weather conditions.

Dams and hippos’ migration

Swaziland Environmental Justice Agenda (SEJA) Chairman Sivumelwano Nyembe agreed with Maphalala. As an action group, he said they observed that dams posed an environmental challenge to mammals because hippos could not climb over the dam wall.

The challenges animals face result in habitat fragmentation of species — a process when parts of a habitat are destroyed, leaving behind smaller unconnected areas.

“Communities must learn to coexist with animals living in the same ecosystem. Some aren’t as dangerous as people might think. If the animals destroy the fields, the state or the environmental entity should provide relief in the form of compensation … Coexistence remains important in every ecosystem,” said Nyembe.

He blamed governments and contractors for failing to adhere to measures such as the Environmental Impact Assessment and the Comprehensive Mitigation Plan. “Most of the time, the Environmental Impact Assessment spells out that there should be corridors to allow the hippos to pass through. But when the project is completed, you discover the contractor ignored some details of the Comprehensive Mitigation Plan,” he said.

Sustainable livelihood

However, the Eswatini National Trust Commission’s senior ecologist, Sandile Gumedze, could not better emphasize the importance of dams and disputed the perception that they were the reason why hippos could not migrate.

“Dams sustain lives and the flow of that river system. We have a problem with our hydrological cycle because now, we experience abnormal weather patterns. Dams support socio-economic needs, so we can’t say they’re all bad. It can depend on their design and management. Hippos can go through the dam, through some channels, or go around. Our dams are not that huge,” said Gumedze.

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