Piles of rubble, with a door or a window frame protruding here and there, are what is left of about 100 houses after the demolition squad arrived.

The demolitions, which began at 9am on December 8, 2020 and were completed by 3pm, were part of Harare City Council's efforts to reclaim wetland spaces which had been converted into residential stands.

Chiwoniso Shoko, whose home in the high-density Harare suburb of Budiriro was among those razed, remembers the rainy summer morning well. A widowed mother of three boys, Shoko, as she is called in her community, had acquired a 300-square-metre residential stand in Budiriro, 22km to the south-west of the city's central business district.

"There was hardly any notice. We were still asleep, it was the noise and rumble of approaching bulldozers that woke us up," she said.

According to the Harare Wetlands Trust, a non-governmental organization with the main purpose to protect wetlands in the capital, Budiriro lost 49% of its wetland hectarage, or 237ha, between 2008 and 2019. The city lost 50% or 784ha over the same period.

Wetlands are essential to the city's water supplies as they provide catchment spaces for rainwater to sip underground, recharge the water table and flow into rivers and lakes. It is in this regard that in recent years city council has been taking a tougher line on illegal settlements that have mushroomed on Harare's wetlands. But this handling of the problem has drawn sharp criticism, with some, like Shoko, losing their homes and others not.

The bulldozing in Budiriro came at the peak of the rainy season and the Shoko family had to hurry and throw up a makeshift shoulder-high structure. Work on her house was progressing. Two of its seven rooms were complete, and the rest had reached window height. Shoko and her boys, aged 6, 10 and 14, were living there while work continued. Now, she stands on the ruins of their old home, what remains of an US$11,500 investment for the family, the equivalent to six year's salary for an average government employee in Zimbabwe.

Some US$7,000 of this money which was part of a benefit pay-out from her late husband's employer went on the land and Shoko spent a further US$4,500 – money she earned as a small-time cross-border trader – on the building work.

Shoko is truly not the only one who carries such a trauma in her. Thousands of neighbors suffered similar heartbreaks. Most lost homes, many nearing completions, and many now live in shacks or temporary shelters amid the rubble too.

The widow acknowledges she had been a bit skeptical about acquiring land here, but said a representative for the developers, Masimba Cooperative, reassured her all was well, pointing to other settlements in the city built on wetlands. She said she had been unaware of the importance of wetlands at the time and accused the council of double standards: Only within a 10 minutes’ drive from her demolished home stands a flourishing settlement built on top of a wetland in Belvedere, a middle-class residential area.

"Since the incident occurred, I have always been wondering to myself, are wetlands only found down here in the high-density suburbs," said Shoko during a stroll in a rubble-strewn field, her hands behind her back in a posture evident of distress.

The Harare Wetlands Trust confirmed that Belvedere has lost 36% of its wetland area yet not a single eviction notice has been served in almost 10 years of its existence.

During an interview on that matter, Selestino Chari, the trust’s program manager, emphasized that without a doubt, building on top of a wetland is illegal but he questioned the arbitrary and high-handed way the council has enforced the law.

“[It] feels it has the jurisdiction to save or destroy the ecosystem. Occupied wetland spaces in the low-density suburbs were parceled out by the city council and so they can't drag themselves to court in order to reclaim the spaces. But in the high-density suburbs, land barons are widely responsible for wetland occupation and in cases like such [case of Budiriro], the council is never slow in taking matters to court for demolition orders.”

He said this sustained a view that the demolitions sprang from frustration and that the council was not benefiting from the sale of the land, rather than from any will to save wetlands."It takes a neutral party, like our organization, or a complaint by residents for an issue of wetland occupation in low-density suburbs to be discussed," Chari adds.

The number of court cases speaks to the relevance and at the same time about the disinterest in change. The Trust had brought more than 25 cases to court - against the city council and housing cooperatives over the legality of certain settlements - and three-quarters of them involve houses in Harare's low-density suburbs. However, the cases have been dragged on since 2014 and no action has been taken.

This indifference of urban actors has led to a mobilization of civil society. organisations representing residents of other neighborhoods where demolitions are set to take place also echoed Chari’s sentiments condemning the selective application of laws.

For instance, Gift Kurupati, secretary-general of the Chitungwiza Progressive Residents’ Association, a non-for-profit organization that represents ratepayers and tenants in Chitungwiza, (a dormitory town 25km south of central Harare) is part of this mobilization and, is critical of the role played by the national authorities.

“What worries us as residents is that regulatory authorities like the Environment Management Agency always talk about wetlands that are occupied by the poor. If it pertains to (affluent) areas like Longcheng (shopping centre) in Belvedere, Nyaradzo Funeral Services in Chitungwiza and the Old Mutual shopping mall in Chitungwiza nothing is said," stated Kurupati in a phone interview with this publication.

He said they and other individuals and organizations, including the Combined Harare Residents’ Association, had tried to stop development on wetlands in Belvedere but to no avail.  

While the rich are seemingly at liberty to break environmental laws, including the Environmental Management Act Chapter which provides for the sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the environment, the effects of wetland occupation are hurting the poor.

A stroll in any of the affluent low-density neighborhoods reveals that almost every household has sunk a borehole of its own. But it’s a luxury, only a few in Harare’s high-density suburbs can afford, and at any time of the day women and children queue at communal borehole points servicing a radius 1-2km, as the council's water facilities fail to keep pace with an ever-swelling population.

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced in February 2021 that he had tasked a team to identify and develop alternative spaces for the relocation of families whose houses were built in wetlands and other undesignated areas. But several months on, nothing has been materialized.
Shoko would like to take the president at his word but has her doubts. “So for now, while we wish for matters to be taken care of we are not expecting too much,” Shoko said.

More than 30 000 buildings, mostly homes, in Harare’s high-density suburbs, are set to be demolished, as well as about 11 000 more homes in Chitungwiza.