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STUMPS and charcoal kilns have characterised the Kafue watershed along the borderline in Kipushi. PICTURE: BRIAN MALAMA

Kafue River expedition

FOR a river that flows for 1,600km and supports about 60 percent of Zambia’s population in many ways, its source could not be more obscure.

To get to the heart of the Kafue River, which is near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at Kipushi in North-Western Province, we had to endure 40 minutes ride on motorcycle.
The source is better accessed through the DRC, but Congolese border officials were reluctant to grant us access upon learning we were journalists. Instead they demanded we pay a minder to escort us.
One official had warned us about the presence of Congolese soldiers along the border. The officials also tried to extort US$100 from us. And they were uncompromising in their demands.
But we were undeterred in our quest to see the source of Zambia’s life line.
And along this porous border, there had to be another route, albeit unofficial (which means illegal). And the Congolese bikers we had hired knew all too well how to get around our obstacle.
“What about the soldiers?” I asked Embu Mbuyamba, my bike rider.
“Don’t worry, all they want is money,” he told me.
“When they shout ‘Jambo!’ just reply ‘Jambo!’” he coached me over the drone of his two-wheeler.
“Jambo” is the Swahili equivalent of hello.
A few minutes into our bumpy ride, most of which was through the bush, we came across a military checkpoint where Embu paid 1,000 francs (an equivalent of K7.50) to the soldiers for passage.
The soldiers delightedly got the money without any questioning and waved us on.
We passed the second checkpoint in similar manner.
A local Congolese called Mbanja, whose homestead is situated about 300 metres from the source, just across the road that demarcates the two countries, led us into a small dambo area.
Abandoning our motorbikes, we walked gingerly on soft ground, parting overgrown elephant grass and reeds. The ground got wetter and wetter as we walked on.
And there, under a single jackal berry tree was a small well about a metre deep, overflowing peacefully with crystal-clear water.
The birth of the Kafue River is unbelievably unremarkable. I had to ask Mbanja if he was sure he had led us to the right spot. But he knew all too well.
From here, the river flows eastwards as a small river the locals call Lwenge.
It is not clear why the Lambas call the river Lwenge.
No one, even among the elders I asked, could tell me why the river is named Lwenge, or what the name means.
A few kilometres from its source, the youthful river picks up pace and resembles a fast-flowing stream, its water lashing against rocks and stubborn trees that have withstood its current for years.
There seems to be little appreciation of the Kafue River here – and the water flows unharnessed out of Kipushi, leaving the small community starved of its precious liquid.
Previous efforts to channel water from the river to the small community failed, and so the people have to draw their water across the border. Talk of irony.
The biggest beneficiaries of the Kafue River are not here, but down river.
And some who have lived here many years have never seen the Kafue River as a mature river; all they know is the youthful Lwenge River that flows through their small settlements and villages.
“I have only seen it on maps,” says Moses Tenson, a 42-year-old man who has lived in Kipushi since birth.
And when asked if he had been to the source of the Kafue River, Moses simply wagged his head.
While a visit to the source of the Kafue was exciting, it also revealed massive deforestation taking place around the river source.
The forests in Kipushi are daily being invaded by charcoal producers.
Many old-growth trees have been felled and fed to charcoal kilns to meet an insatiable market in Lubumbashi across the border.
On a bush path leading to the source of the Kafue River, we came across many Congolese and Zambian men carrying bags of charcoal on bicycles.
Most of the sweaty men carried four bags each.
The charcoal traders use bush paths to go to Lubumbashi to evade Congolese soldiers. Congolese authorities are said to strictly enforce laws protecting their forests in Katanga Province.
One of the charcoal traders I met was 29-year-old Allan Bombeki, a Zambian who makes a trip every day except on Sundays.
A bag of charcoal costs about K75, probably more in Lubumbashi.
It is hard to imagine the scale of deforestation in this area, but the number of charcoal traders we met – about eight in a space of one hour – speaks volumes about the devastation.
“There used to be a lot of trees in this area, but they have now been cut by people making charcoal,” says Pefias Bulaya, who is a community leader at Kipushi.
He says people cutting trees get the authority from village headmen after paying a certain amount of money.
This, despite these forests being listed as state protected areas.
There is only one forestry officer in Mushindamo district, and he has no transport, making enforcement of laws impractical.
Ecologist Griffin Shanungu is concerned that the indiscriminate cutting of trees in the catchment area of the Kafue River may cause the river to dry up one day.
But can a river carrying billions of litres of water dry up one day?
“A river can die, just mess around with the source, mess around with the water flow,” says Mr Shanungu.
The ecologist says the source of the Kafue River must be a national heritage site.
“The forest areas that are on the periphery of the source should be massively protected because if those are impacted negatively, then it will impact the flow of the Kafue River,” says Mr Shanungu.
He adds: “You cut down the forest, that ability to trap the water to make sure that it seeps into the ground and feeds into the recharge system for the river to continue flowing is lost.”
The National Heritage Commission (NHC) spokesperson Victor Kanguya says there are plans to declare the source of the Kafue River a national heritage site.
Mr Kanguya hopes that Government will soon provide funds to the NHC to build infrastructure at the site such as access roads, walk-ways, staff houses, and a visitor information centre, the same way the commission has done at the source of the Zambezi River in the Kaleni Hills.
He says the infrastructure will be built in such a way as not to disturb the river source.
Mr Kanguya thinks once that is done, the forests will be better protected.
But the forest near the source of the Kafue River is not the only one suffering massive deforestation. Downriver in Chililabombwe, on the Copperbelt, we visited a forest reserve called Hippo Pool Forest in the Kafue River catchment area.
The forest has over the years been invaded by illegal settlers, who engage in farming and charcoal production. The 650-hactre forest area, which straddles Chingola and Chililabombwe has suffered massive deforestation, and there are signs of siltation in the river.
But deforestation may not be the only threat to the Kafue River.
At Mushindamo Technical School, we found a group of Chinese men offloading supplies from a truck. The Chinese are here to prospect for minerals, copper probably.
That this area is rich in minerals is without doubt. Just across the border, about three kilometres from the river, there is a zinc and copper underground mine owned in partnership by a Canadian developer and Congolese state-owned mining company.
And the Chinese we met are not the only ones who have shown interest in the mineral reserves here.
But opening this area to large-scale mining could most likely harm the river.
On the Copperbelt, where the Kafue River flows through three mining towns, the impact on the river is without question.
Peter Sinkamba, an environmentalist and leader of the Green Party, says since the dawn of large-scale mining on the Copperbelt in the 1930s, the Kafue River is becoming shallower and narrower by the day.
“Most of the recharge areas for the water shade here have been affected by underground activities and construction,” he says.
Mr Sinkamba mentions about five streams that feed into the Kafue but have now dried up.
Mr Sinkamba, however, thinks the Kafue River is surviving in part because of the water it gets from the underground water pumped by Konkola Copper Mines at its mine in Chililabombwe.
The mine pumps 350,000 cubic metres or 350 million litres of water out of the mine every day. That is enough water to fill 140 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Much of the water is channelled into the Kafue River.
“If you cut out that water, this river is dead,” Mr Sinkamba says.