GOVERNANCE Activist and Chartered Environmentalist Rueben Lifuka has advised the UPND government to take timely action on Forest 27 by conducting a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).
Reacting to a News Diggers! Editorial titled “Govt should think twice before demolishing houses in Forest 27”, Lifuka expressed concern that the newspaper was aiding government in rescinding its position on demolition.
“The effects of Forest 27 cannot be confined to just the ZAF military base area, very soon the communities as far afield as Chunga will be affected by what is happening in Forest 27. So again, I didn’t expect to see this blatant support for this illegality from News Diggers. I agree that you have done well in keeping the conversation on Forest 27 and you have been in the forefront on this and no other media can claim leadership on this topic like News Diggers. My point is simply that you played into the hands of Gary Nkombo and the UPND government which wants an escape route for their failure to proceed with their promise to demolish the structures in Forest 27,” Lifuka said.
“The truth is Gary and team have no desire to that but they don’t want to be seen to be u-turning on a promise they made therefore by asking the public whether they should go ahead and demolish- they are testing the waters and hoping to get more responses like the one in your editorial which says don’t demolish, because the water body is already polluted by ZAF and Kingsland.”
He said government should immediately commission a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the area.
“In the interest of arriving a just and scientifically sound decision, government should immediately commission a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the area. However, this should be preceded by the formal issuance of stop orders to all ongoing construction activities until a decision on the way forward is made. As part of the SEA, necessary technical studies should be conducted to determine the water quality in the area as well as the biodiversity loss among others. We need to determine what environmental damage has already been caused and what further damage will be caused if the developments in the area go ahead,” he said.
Lifuka called for an internal and external investigation into the matter.
“It is equally important that the administrative handling of the degazettion of Forest 27 is looked at. There are senior government officials, some of them who continue to serve in government, who exercised poor judgment and basically abused their authority in the handling of this process. Both an internal and external investigation should be conducted and necessary disciplinary actions taken. Government should not take into account the fact there are many other interested and affected parties in the Forest 27 saga. Government should be duly considered about the short to medium term environmental impacts that will arise from the destruction caused to an ecologically sensitive area,” he said.
“It is equally important that the administrative handling of the degazettion of Forest 27 is looked at. There are senior government officials, some of them who continue to serve in government, who exercised poor judgment and basically abused their authority in the handling of this process.”
Lifuka wondered if the lives and investments by a few people in Forest 27 were more important than the thousands of poor people living downstream who would be subjected to drinking polluted water.
“As an Architect and chartered Environmentalist, I will tell you for free that there is no civil engineering genius who will design a sewer system which will mitigate the pollution to a water recharge area. In any case, how is it that the lives and investments of the few in Forest 27 are more important than the thousands of poor people living downstream who will be subjected to drinking polluted water and having their water sources drying up? With the Chalimbana River drying up, Lusaka has a massive challenge of water scarcity and I can assure you that just in the next few years, water will be a big urban environmental and social challenge in Lusaka which is one of the smallest towns in Zambia geographically but with the highest population density,” Lifuka said.
“Most communities living downstream already suffer many other social and economic challenges and should be given due consideration in any decision that government takes on Forest 27. It is important to note that Forest No. 27 has been the subject of degazettion on a number of occasions and at each instance, portions of Forest 27 have been hived off for different reasons. So far, three Statutory Instruments have been passed in relation to Forest 27 and these are SI No. 62 of 2017, SI No. 59 of 2018 and SI No 13 of 2019. The reasons for such degazettion have been fronted in an altruistic manner namely for “development purposes” which includes freeing up land for residential and commercial developments.”
Lifuka wondered if there was an approved spatial plan for the area.
“The driving force for such degazettion has mostly been driven by urban and political elites who have been the major beneficiaries of land allocation in Forest 27. There have always been a number of unanswered questions insofar as Forest 27 is concerned, for instance, is there an approved spatial plan for the area? Do all property developers in this area have the necessary planning permission? Why did government not conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment of Forest 27 before passing the last SI No 13 of 2019?,” Lifuka said.
He said Lands Minister Elijah Muchima’s excuse that there were no funds for a SEA was not right.
“The UPND in opposition was very vocal on Forest 27 and it is not right that the excuse from the Minister of Lands is lack of finances for the SEA. This should have been budgeted for. Government should be in the forefront in adhering to the provisions of section 23 of the Environmental Management Act No 12 of 2011, which requires proponents of policy, programme or plan that could have an adverse effect on environmental management or the sustainable management and utilization of natural resources, to mandatorily conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment,” he said.
“Forest 27 is not the only one which was degazetted in dubious circumstances by the PF administration. There are a lot of other problems in other parts of the country where ecologically sensitive areas have been encroached. Government will not always depend on the goodwill of WWF Zambia or donors to conduct such important Environmental Assessments. Government should proactively plan and budget for sound environmental management.”
Lifuka said government should not spend time soliciting for public views on whether to demolish houses in the forest or not.
“The Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, whose ministry superintends over spatial planning in the country as well as the Minister of Lands, should not spend time soliciting for public views on whether to demolish or not to demolish the houses in Forest 27. This issue is serious and needs urgent attention before many lives are affected. Let us not allow for unnecessary diversions from a critical problem of encroachment in an ecologically sensitive area. It is further important that the media do not pander to this political brinkmanship but hold the UPND government accountable for its acts of commission or omission in the way it is deterring on the Forest 27 saga. While the Ministers are taking polls on social media on what public policy to pursue, lives are being negatively affected downstream of Forest 27,” said Lifuka.
Last year, Lands Minister Elijah Muchima said his ministry was looking for resources to conduct a strategic Environmental Impact Assessment on the forest, which was an expensive exercise.