‘Water is Life, Conserve it!’ is the marketing slogan of the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company (LWSC). What this slogan obscures, however, is the point that there can be no water to conserve without the forests. There exists a strong relationship between trees and water, one that is difficult to grasp in times of bloom, especially in urban areas. Forests and play parks in and around the city form a very cardinal component of the urban milieu. Such green spaces play a key role in providing urban residents with a myriad of ecosystem goods and services, the totality of benefits obtained from nature. Some of these benefits include provisioning services such as food and water; regulating services such as control of floods, drought, land degradation, and disease; supporting services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling; and cultural services such as recreational, spiritual, religious and other non-material benefits. In terms of regulating and supporting services, the city of Lusaka is characterised by two extremes: dust storms during the dry season and serious floods during the rainy season. Residential areas and major roads experience serious dust storms and flooding during the dry and rainy season. This is largely because we have removed the vegetation cover around the city, leaving it exposed. So, on bare ground, a dust storm easily forms once there are strong winds. Similarly, bare ground coupled with an almost non-existent drainage system in most parts of the city greatly enhances run-off during the rainy season which easily results in serious flooding. Flooding was previously most common in the central business district (CBD) but is now a citywide phenomenon. So perhaps the marketing slogan of the LWSC should be changed to ‘Forest is Water and Water is Life, Conserve the Forest!’ The same slogan must be adopted by the Forestry Department, Water Resources Management Authority (WARMA) and Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation (ZAFFICO), for they provide the foundation for the water resource.

One of the main reasons why Lusaka is now home to annual floods and frequent water shortages is the continued destruction of the city’s environment, particularly the depletion of forests that provide much of its water resources. The city’s major forest reserve is the Lusaka East Forest Reserve, or Local Forest No. 27 (Forest 27 henceforth). Approximately 1,800 hectares in size, Forest 27 provides the residents of Lusaka with all the ecosystem goods and services that nature has bequeathed to humans. More importantly, it provides the regulating services (climate and water regulation – dust, flood, drought control) and supporting services (soil formation, nutrient cycling, and primary production – recharge zone). Both regulating and supporting services are crucial to the communities that depend on the Chalimbana River and the residents in the city of Lusaka in the face of climate change. To this end, the Lusaka East Forest Reserve is important in a number of ways. First, Forest No. 27 was specifically created in order to protect the headwaters of the Chalimbana River, which drains most of the area east of the city, and flows eastward to its confluence with the Chongwe River south of Chongwe town. As I write this article, the Chongwe River and Chongwe Dam have both dried up resulting in a serious water crisis in the district. Second, Forest 27 is a recharge zone for the city of Lusaka. A recharge zone is an area in which surface water enters the aquifer. In the case of Lusaka, this is the area in which surface water or precipitation percolate through relatively porous, unconsolidated, or fractured materials, such as sand that lie over a water bearing, or aquifer, formation. For the city of Lusaka, the Lusaka Dolomite and Cheta Limestone aquifers are the main sources of groundwater supplied to the residents. Thus, if we lose Forest 27 to urban development, there are obvious and serious consequences for the communities that depend on the Chalimbana River and water security for the city of Lusaka, particularly from groundwater sources.

South of Forest 27 is the Lusaka South Local Forest Reserve No. 26 (Forest 26 henceforth), approximately 7,000 hectares in size before it was partially de-gazetted in 2007 to pave way for the development of the Multi Facility Economic Zone (MFEZ). The remainder of approximately 6,000 hectares was turned into the Lusaka National Park, which in itself was a commendable decision as it does not compromise the recharge zone functions of the forest reserve. The two reserves, Forests 26 and 27, form the backbone of several sub-catchments in the Lusaka area. These include Ngwerere River in the Northeast (part of Chongwe headwaters), Chalimbana River (a tributary of the Chongwe River) flowing eastwards, Chunga River heading westward to join the Mwembeshi, Chilongolo River flowing in southward direction towards the Kafue Flats, and Funswe River and other smaller streams such as the Mampompo dewatering southwards to join the Kafue in the Kafue gorge. Forests 26 and 27 are the last remaining large-scale recharge zones within the city of Lusaka area. The imminent loss of these two forest reserves to urban development no doubt poses serious threats to water security for the city of Lusaka.

If we continue decimating our last remaining key recharge zones in Forests 26 and 27, and building over the other recharge zones as we have done in many parts of the city of Lusaka – examples include the Mass Media area, East Park and Marshlands, Arcades and Manda Hill, Chalala, Libala South and Kamwala South – then we must brace ourselves for Day Zero. Day zero is the day when most of the city taps will be turned off because LWSC will have no water to pump from the various sources because the levels will have dropped below the critical thresholds. This is already happening in Chongwe so we can learn from there. The consequences of reaching this point are far reaching. For instance, it will mean residents will have to stand in long queues to collect say 15 liters of water per person per day. Such water will be sourced from whatever remaining critical supplies that will be left in the river or boreholes and distributed in water bowsers. Is this a likely scenario for Lusaka? Can it ever happen? Yes, unless we take the collective and urgent action that is needed to combat the ongoing wanton destruction of Lusaka’s environment.

In his 2019 State of the Nation address to Parliament, President Edgar Lungu bemoaned the devastating effects of climate change on Zambia’s life but stopped short of outlining a series of measures that are essential to managing or even reversing the trend, such as planting new trees and conserving the forests we have, presently. The president missed the opportunity to acknowledge that it is human actions, human agency that is feeding climate change. Thanks to policy failures and economic decline, the forests are disappearing and poverty is causing many people to adopt desperate efforts to survive, even at the expense of nature. It is thus paradoxical for the government to de-gazette Forest 27, on the one hand, and cry ‘climate change’ on the other hand, when it is the former that is giving rise to the latter. What is needed is strong leadership, one that is prepared to take drastic measures, including reversing the selfish sharing of Forest 27 among the super elites of Lusaka, in order to preserve what is arguably the city’s remaining major source of water. Without Forest 27, there would be no water in Lusaka. Without water, there would be no electricity. Without water and electricity, there would be no life. Do those who are clamoring to pillage and plunder Forest 27, who are fragrantly violating Lusaka’s environment, understand this essential truth? We must act now to prevent the danger that faces us: the imminent death of life in Lusaka and the Chalimbana catchment or the gradual extinction of the city’s human inhabitants and the communities along the Chalimbana catchement. Hello, is there anyone listening out there?

Forests 26 and 27 are very valuable to the residents of Lusaka and the communities in the broader catchments that they both provide headwaters. They are priceless! The future of our children and their children depends on these two forests for water supply and other ecosystem goods and services. We can decimate the two forests and build latest mansions with the state of the knowledge architectural designs in their place. But of what use will those mansions be when taps run dry, on day zero? We need to protect these two forest reserves in order to ameliorate the significant threats to groundwater pollution and flooding in the city of Lusaka, and even more importantly, to secure the livelihoods of the millions of people who entirely depend on the catchments of the headwaters provided by these two forests. At the end of the day, what we need the most, is the creation of more forest reserves and play parks in and around the city of Lusaka, for the liveable city of the 21st century is largely defined by lavish green spaces – not dust storms, flooding or day zero.

Douty Chibamba is a Lecturer in Geography at the University of Zambia. For feedback, emai [email protected]