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Friday, January 22, 2021

Explained: Why Victoria Falls are down to a trickle

The Victoria Falls are one of southern Africa’s biggest tourist attractions, but now one of the worst droughts of the century has reduced its flow to a trickle triggering fears that climate change might destroy a major tourist attraction such as this.

Written by Mehr Gill | New Delhi | Updated: December 9, 2019 6:52:01 am
Victoria falls, Victoria falls drought, Victoria falls water quantity, Victoria falls UNESCO, Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe drought Low-water levels are seen after a prolonged drought at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe (Reuters)

The flow of Victoria Falls, with a width of 1.7 km and a height of roughly 108 metres, has been reduced to a trickle due to the severe droughts in the southern African region since October 2018. The falls are fed by the Zambezi river and define the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe in southern Africa.

The falls are one of southern Africa’s biggest tourist attractions, but now one of the worst droughts of the century has reduced its flow to a trickle triggering fears that climate change might destroy a major tourist attraction such as this. The news comes amid the ongoing 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that is being held in Madrid, Spain.

The falls are also referred to as “The Smoke that Thunders” and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1855, explorer David Livingstone became the first European to witness the falls and called it, “a view for the angels”.

What are the possible reasons for the Victoria Falls drying up significantly?

Typically, the months of November and December are the driest times for the region. In November, Principal Climate Change Researcher at Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Climate and Tourism told the BBC that the average flow over the falls is down by roughly 50 per cent this year.

In the last two months, over 200 elephants have died in Zimbabwe’s conservation zones in Mana Pools and Hwange National Park due to the severe drought conditions. Now, hundreds of elephants and dozens of lions will be relocated by the country’s wildlife agency to save them from the drought, in what will be the biggest translocation of animals in the history of wildlife movement. On November 28, a UN report said that because of the drought conditions in Zimbabwe, the majority of the population was food insecure.

Significantly, according to the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the southern African region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with temperatures rising faster at over 2 degree Celsius as compared to global warming at 1.5 degree Celsius. “At 1.5°C, a robust signal of precipitation reduction is found over the Limpopo basin and smaller areas of the Zambezi basin in Zambia,” the report says.

The report also projects a precipitation decrease of about 10-20 per cent, coupled with longer dry spells over Namibia, Botswana, northern Zimbabwe and southern Zambia (Victoria falls are located in southwestern Zambia and northwestern Zimbabwe). Furthermore, the report adds, “Projected reductions in streamflow of 5–10 per cent in the Zambezi River basin have been associated with increased evaporation and transpiration rates resulting from a rise in temperature with issues for hydroelectric power across the region of southern Africa.”

While the droughts are affecting both people and wildlife in Zimbabwe, the effects of the drought are being felt on both sides of the border of Victoria falls. On October 1, a report published in The New York Times said, “Most of the streams and rivers are dried out, and level of the Kariba Reservoir on the border of neighbouring Zimbabwe has dropped by three meters. The entire country is in dire need of water.”

In fact, droughts in the southern African region have been ongoing since October 2018 because of which over 10.8 million in the southern African region were facing food insecurity by the end of 2018.

Even so, some climate scientists are advising caution in categorically putting the blame on climate change. A Reuters report published on December 6 has quoted Harald Kling, hydrologist at engineering firm Poyry and a Zambezi river expert as saying that climate science deals in decades, not particular years. “…so it’s sometimes difficult to say this is because of climate change because droughts have always occurred,” he said.

A combination picture shows water flowing (top) and low-water levels after a prolonged drought (bottom) at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe taken January 17, 2019 and December 4, 2019 (Reuters Photo)

Slow flow

According to data published by the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), the maximum flow recorded at Victoria Falls was during the days when the Kariba Dam was being constructed in March 1958, at 10,000 cubic metres per second and the lowest flow was during the 1995-1996 season, when the annual mean flow was at 390 cubic metres per second. The long term mean annual flow at Victoria falls is over 1,100 cubic metres per second. For the most recent data available on ZRA for the period between November 26 to December 2, 2019, the flows at Victoria falls have increased from 207 cubic metres per second on November 26 to 227 cubic metres per second on December 2. Last year on the same date the flow was at 220 cubic metres per second.

Victoria Falls and Tourism

Being one of the biggest tourist attractions in southern Africa, tourism at Victoria Falls brings in some amount of revenue for both Zambia and Zimbabwe. The falls can be accessed through both countries, however, while 75 per cent of the falls are visible from Zimbabwe, only 25 per cent of the falls are visible from Zambia. Therefore, more tourists access it through Zimbabwe.

According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, out of over 9.5 lakh tourists who visited national parks, 62 per cent of them visited the rainforest (Victoria Falls) and the Zambezi National Park. While other national parks in the country are mostly visited by domestic tourists, over 71 per cent of the arrivals at Victoria falls were foreigners. The report notes that the revenue from tourism in Zimbabwe increased from $917 million to $1.386 billion, out of which $1.051 billion came from foreign arrivals. Significantly, the opening of the Victoria Falls International Terminal in 2015, improved connectivity to the area.

On the other hand, the tourist arrivals at the Zambian side of the falls recorded a drop between 2014-15, according to Zambia’s Ministry of Tourism and Art. In 2015, 1.41 lakh tourists visited the falls, down from 1.52 lakh tourists in 2014. The international tourist arrivals also fell by over 34.7 per cent.

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