Successive Climate Change Induced Droughts Choke Victoria Falls
Water has stopped rushing over parts of the Victoria Falls because of climate change.
Zambian President Edgar Lungu this week tweeted pictures of the waterfall’s declining state.
By Jeffrey Gogo
They show large sections of the world-famous waterfall completely dried up, emptied of its once powerful roar that lures millions of visitors each year — the smoke that thunders.
In one photograph, a handful of trees hang defiantly atop the rocky cliffside, starring nonchalantly into the parched gorges below — perhaps only as a reminder of the natural wonder’s waning glory.
“These pictures of the Victoria Falls are a stark reminder of what climate change is doing to our environment and livelihood (s),” president Lungu lamented.
“We have no time to play politics with climate change. We must come together and provide solutions around mitigation and adaptation,” he pleaded.
Scientists expected climate change to impact the Victoria Falls badly, but they did not expect it to happen so fast.
According to professor Godwell Nhamo, a Zimbabwean researcher with the University of South Africa (Unisa), the waterfall is drying up because of a succession of climate change-triggered droughts.
Most of the changes have occurred in the months of October and November, where rain has become scarcer, temperatures soared and waterflow diminished.
The Victoria Falls has been hit by drought in 19 of the 40 years since 1976, Nhamo states in a study published last year, which he co-authored.
During this period, droughts sometimes extended for up to four years non-stop, it says.
October, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Zimbabwe, has particularly been the driest.
Precipitation during the month has completely dried up. In 1976, about 40mm of rain fell in October in Victoria Falls. Today, none does at all.
“Rain now starts in November, and has not extended beyond April, the traditional rain-end month,” Nhamo said in the report.
“That means the rainy season has shortened by a month. The delay in the onset of the rainy season could have ramifications on animal habitat, animal migration patterns, and flora and fauna life cycles in the Victoria Falls resort,” he added.
When the publication shared president Lungu’s pictures with Professor Nhamo on October 1, he expressed total shock.
“Too bad!” he exclaimed.
“More research needs to be done upstream (of the Zambezi River) to determine the impacts of land use changes, especially heavy water usage from expanding agriculture and urban settlements,” Nhamo suggested.
“We could simply be using more water than the system can sustain. The supply from the entire Zambezi basin could also be an issue with river siltation aggravated by bad agriculture/farming practices.”
No comment could immediately be obtained from Zimbabwe’s tourism authorities, local custodians of the natural wonder.
Climate Change has been found to be the biggest cause of extreme events such as drought and floods, according to the UN expert panel on climate change.
Generally, waterflow at the Victoria Falls has increased since 1976, particularly for April and May, Nhamo says in his study.
More years have exceeded the average annual 1 000 cubic metre per second water discharge in the past 40 years.
At its greatest, more than 8 700 cubic metres of water splashed down the gorges at the Victoria Falls each second. That was in 1957. Things have never been the same since.
Researchers say the peak full-spray viewing period, historically between March and May, is becoming shorter.
“There is a chance that some months may witness a dried up (Victoria) Falls given that the rainfall has been reducing drastically, against increasing maximum and minimum temperatures,” the study concludes.
This will be bad news for visitors. Holidaymakers love to see the Victoria Falls in its full glory and majesty: the mist, the rainbow, and the thunder.
And that mostly happens when the waterflow is at full discharge.
Titled “Climate change and potential impact on tourism: Evidence from the Zimbabwean side of the Victoria Falls”, the case study-based research was done over two years utilising meteorological and hydrological data dating back 40 years.
About 370 tourists from across the world who have visited the Victoria Falls in the past were surveyed via the Internet and through Facebook safari and tourism groups.
The study finds that since 1976 day-time temperatures in the Victoria Falls have risen 1,4 degrees Celsius, on average, due to climate change. The greatest month-on-month increase was noticed in October, a rise of 3,8 degrees Celsius, which is faster than the national average.
Temperatures have warmed by under one degree Celsius across Zimbabwe in the past 100 years.
“Such high temperatures (in Victoria Falls) may affect tourists’ comfort and flora and fauna that have to adapt to the ever increasing temperatures,” said Nhamo.
Winters are becoming warmer, he said, forecasting a spike in demand for cooling systems both in the home and offices, in a vicious cycle that will in turn impact negatively on the waterfall.
Tourism accounts for over 5 percent of the country’s $25 billion GDP and about 100 000 people work in the sector, according to Government data.
Victoria Falls is Zimbabwe’s main tourist trump card. More than one million people flock to see the World Wonder each year.
Any disruption caused by climate change on water discharge at the waterfall will be most damaging to the tourism industry in particular, and the Zimbabwean economy in general.
Higher temperatures are already hitting some businesses in the Victoria Falls hard.
Two helicopter companies that fly tourists above the falls for a better view say warmer climates were disrupting business.
They say above 35 degrees’ Celsius temperatures impeded operational efficiency. They cannot fly to the regulatory height anymore without consuming more fuel.
In the future, it might cost more to fly in and out of the Victoria Falls, the study says.
That’s because higher temperatures have increased the risk of turbulence, flight sickness, greater aeroplane energy consumption and other issues.
Higher temperatures mean thinner air, requiring “flights to have longer runways and load shedding on take-off . . . such trends could result in air tickets becoming higher as insurance premiums for airlines go
higher to cater for increased risk”, the research says.
Featured Image: Some sections of the Victoria Falls which are now dry. — (Picture by Zambian President Edgar Lungu – Twitter)