Tourist developments putting famous falls at risk
Stuff NZ Newspapers
Victoria Falls, the world’s largest sheet of falling water, known locally as Mosioa-Tunya (‘‘the smoke that thunders’’), is being reimagined with a series of tourist developments that critics say risk permanently degrading one of Africa’s greatest natural wonders. The plans on the Zambian side include a 300-bed hotel already under construction, with provision for a golf course, disrupting an established corridor for wildlife. There have been reports of warning shots being fired by guards at the site to repel elephants from their traditional route. On the Zimbabwean side, a restaurant complex is planned. At Cataract Island, an environmentally sensitive rocky promontory, a site has been identified from which tourists can take death-defying ‘‘selfies’’ in a natural pool on the lip of the falls. Any development would breach Zimbabwe and Zambia’s obligations to preserve the area as a world heritage site, a status granted in 1989 by Unesco. It is monitored by its world heritage committee, which in its most recent public report noted ‘‘with utmost concern’’ the development pressure at the falls. A petition against the plans is growing fast. Public consultation, including environmental impact assessments, has not been fully followed by the authorities in Zimbabwe and Zambia, which share responsibility for the Zambezi River where it forms their international border. The lack of full transparency about the potentially lucrative projects has drawn rumours of corruption. Allegations of commercial graft and political manipulation are common in the two countries. The 1.8km-wide torrent has created a pocket of rainforest-like biodiversity in what is otherwise arid scrubland. It is this, along with the still-changing basalt rock structures, that give the falls what Unesco termed ‘‘unique and universal value’’. In its report last year, the world heritage committee said its request for Zambia to abandon construction within the protected area was being ignored. Instead, the luxury hotel complex is almost complete, with a planned golf course to reach all the way down to the Zambezi River’s banks, just upstream from the falls. The hotel was first planned 20 years ago, but was shelved in 2007 after objections from the committee. It is not clear why Zambia has now decided to press ahead with it. The green light also appears to have been given for new tourist facilities on Cataract Island. The plan for the island, which is regarded as a unique rainforest biome created by the permanent spray from the falls, was first considered about five years ago but was shelved after public opposition.