There has been alarming reports that Victoria Falls at the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia is dry. Images that have been posted showing the vertical rock wall that usually is invisible under the roaring sheet of plunging water have sent shock-waves in the tourism fraternity. The fact is, the falls are not in some catastrophic decline, this is a normal low season which has just been exacerbated by a drought.
Climate activists and other concerned individuals have pointed to this year’s low levels as an indication of evidence of accelerated effects of climate change. The data at hand does not conclusively show that this is the case. October is usually the start of the low season as the upstream river network dries up.
The lowest flows recorded to date at Victoria Falls were during the 1995/96 season which had an annual mean flow of 390 cubic meters per second. Normally the average annual flow is 1,100 cubic meters per second.
This year and other years have not been atypical. October 2019 water levels were low but not as low as the 1995 levels. They were however just lower than the 2018 levels. In November 2019, the water flow rate has been following the same trajectory as the the 2018 levels. What is more telling is that rainfall has been less in the lower catchment areas of Botswana, Angola and Zambia yet the levels have not gone drastically low.
As of the first week of December 2019, the water levels have begin to rise higher than the 2018 water levels. The levels on the 2nd December was 227m3/s which is higher than the levels at the same time in 2018 which stood at 220m3/s.
Is It Worthy Visiting the Falls?
The falls usually reach their lowest flows around mid November before rising reaching peak levels late around April. During this period, the Zambian side of the falls is usually dry because it is slightly elevated. The Zimbabwe side at this point still has curtains of water though not as majestic.
The weather is warmer and enables visitors to walk and reach certain areas of the falls that are usually dangerous or inaccessible during the other times of the season especially the famous Devil’s Pool. Rafting and canoeing are popular activities during this time.
Upstream is the Zambezi National Park that has a variety of animals which you might be lucky to encounter although because of the lush green that would be starting to pervade the area it might not be the best season for game viewing.
The best times to experience the falls and game viewing is the winter season around June and July. At this time, the water levels of the Zambezi River are still very high, however tributaries are beginning to dry up. The mopani leaves are beginning to fall off making visibility quite easy. Animals also begin to move towards waterholes which are a good place to watch them.
Is This Climate Change?
Parts of Southern Africa have had a number of drought years since 1940, the most notable being 1991-2 which was the most devastating. There has been other mild drought years since then including 2004, 2008 and 2013.
While the frequency of droughts have certainly increased in Southern Africa, the low levels of water in Zambezi river should not be taken as a definitive sign of Climate Change.
While now is a good time to have a conversation on Climate Change, it is important that this conversation be grounded in scientific facts and data. This alarmist approach has created panic and dejection which has affected other parts of the economy that has been sustaining our beautiful countries.
Mosi-oa-Tunya as the Victoria Falls are known locally will be roaring again in a few months as usual!