Saving the “Lungs of the Earth”

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Our very esteemed readers, remember how our April Newsletter promised you our environment and planet on the agenda?  Great if you do. Not to worry if you do not: the facts will help you see why this week’s crusade for our planet and the inspiring story of those who work hard at doing this has become of utmost importance – climate change is real, lets face it.

Startling Facts Courtesy of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)

Did you know that some 120-prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from rainforest plants? Also, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, about two-thirds of all medicines found to have cancer-fighting properties come from rainforest plants.


On to the wetlands: did you know that between 300 and 400 million people live close to – and depend on – wetlands? The world simply cannot do without them. Sadly, it is estimated that since 1900, more than half the world’s wetlands have disappeared.


Who better to bring the reality of the challenges our eco systems face to us than Dr. (Ms.) Musonda Mumba, from the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

This current Programme Officer and Coordinator for the Ecosystem Based Adaptation (EBA) Flagship Programme is also a team member of the Climate Change Adaptation Unit (CCAU). Musonda, will take us on the journey of her life and the peculiarities of being a mentor and champion for our environment – helping us to leave the world better than we met it.


Saving the “Lungs of the Earth”


I think I was lucky to be born in Luapula Province of Northern Zambia.  I remember as a child, driving through the lake region of the province with my family and my father pointing at the wetlands around the Lake Bangweulu.  Ilungu.  That’s a wetland in my mother language – Bemba.  This marshland would morph from a water-logged area in one season to a totally dry area during the dry season with many farmers growing their crops there.  All these I watched at different times of the year from the window of a car.


Many years later I found myself in the Natural Sciences faculty of the University of Zambia with the intension of studying medicine.  Well, my father wanted me to be a doctor but by the time I went to the University of Zambia, I realized just how much I disliked the sight of blood.  I changed faculties and went to the school of Education, which had a fantastic conservation programme that had site visits to some of Zambia’s national parks.  I became convinced over time that I had found my calling.

I informed my father who was incredibly supportive. He simply said I needed to do something I loved and enjoyed.  In 1995 I graduated from University of Zambia and got my first job as a biologist managing an invasive species on the Kafue River of Zambia, which is a tributary to the Zambezi River.  It was an amazing experience.  This was an eye opening experience that actually exposed me to the environmental world and led me on the path that I am on right now.

Water Hyacinth, a beautiful water plant, had become invasive in the Kafue River of Zambia, wreaking havoc even for the hydro electricity generation that Zambia is dependent on.  When I was brought onto the project as a new biologist, I was thrilled.  This Canadian funded project brought to the fore, the challenges of environmental disasters coupled with climate change.

In 1997 I was offered an internship by the Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental organization based in Switzerland.  It was the first time I had lived away from home and also worked in a multi-cultural space that exposed me to amazing work and contacts on wetlands management as well as climate change related issues in Africa.  After spending a year at the Convention on Wetlands, I was offered a role at WWF International, The world Wildlife Fund in Switzerland to be part of their team that looked at issues on how climate change was affecting river and wetland ecosystems around the world.  In an effort to understand how this was happening, we also investigated the impact on local communities and the biodiversity (nature) that depended on these systems.

It was such an amazing experience for me because this work took me to some amazing places in the world such as the Yangtze River in China and the Amazon in Brazil.  I eventually started doing most of my work on African river systems, mainly in West and East Africa.  It was during this time, that I was inspired to explore my PhD.

I applied for the Ted Hollis scholarship with University College London in Geography.  I was lucky to get it and also become the first Hollis Scholar. Nothing delighted me more than the fact I could do my PhD in my country of birth – Zambia.  Better still, it was also in my favourite wetland system, the Kafue Flats, which is a massive floodplain ecosystem with an area of 6,500 square kilometres.

Kafue River, in Zambia at sunset.
Image courtesy of Zambesia Newsletter

The four and half years I spent doing my PhD in London were insightful and also eye-opening on how big dams affect river systems, changing them over time and also making them vulnerable to other drivers such as climate change. This area is home to hydroelectric dams that generate power for Zambia. As a result of this regulation, the wetland has change substantively. Local cattle herders from this region have been dependent on this area for grass and fodder and now with the complexity of climate change manifested in recurring droughts, everything has changed.

Following the completion of my PhD, I went back to work with WWF-UK coordinating their projects in East Africa – Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda – on freshwater issues. I was fortunate enough to apply for a position in Kenya, also within WWF and be able to move back to the continent to do what I loved best – Conservation.

I moved to Kenya in 2006 as the Freshwater Coordinator for the Regional Office of WWF. My move also happened to coincide with a time when the sub-region had gone through a severe drought period with terrible impact on people and ecosystems alike. As part of my role, I was responsible for managing one of the most amazing river system – the Mara River – that flows through what’s considered the eighth wonder of the world – the Maasai Mara Reserve and Serengeti National Park. This place has the most amazing wildebeest migration that attracts millions of tourists and is also home to some of the amazing Maasai people. In 2008 while still with WWF I took 20 men on an expedition to climb Rwenzori Mountain range from the Uganda side. This trek was to look at how climate change was impacting glaciers and ultimately water resources that eventually flow to the Nile River.

Musonda in Rwenzori @ 4000 m

Musonda in Rwenzori @ 4000 m

This was an amazing experience for me. It was simply mind blowing!! I had never imagined seeing glaciers on the equator let alone taking ten days to climb this very scenic mountain range. Through this experience and work, I was encouraged to apply for a new role I saw at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In 2008, October, I joined UNEP in Nairobi, Kenya at its headquarters. This role focused on undertaking both policy and scientific work at the global level focused on climate change adaptation. Eventually I refocused my work and started looking at how mountain ecosystems where affected by climate change and the impact for people and biodiversity. Since 2010 I was responsible for coordinating UNEP’s Ecosystem based Adaptation (EbA) Flagship Programme and also managed to fundraise for resources to manage a project that looked at the mountain ecosystems on Nepal (Himalayas), Peru (Andes) and Uganda (Mount Elgon). This work exposed me to work in diverse cultures, working with people with different backgrounds and also interests.



Musonda with the Minister for Environment Peru

Musonda in Peru_Carhuayo wetland

Musonda in Peru_Carhuayo wetland

I was quite surprised to see many similarities between mountain communities that are thousands of miles apart in different continent. One thing that stood out was the fact that in most of these places, men migrate to cities leaving behind women to manage the households and also work in the fields. This type of gender disparity has led to governments not addressing the challenges women face when such dynamics manifests itself and the complexity it brings along.

Through my work I have also been blessed enough to mentor not just young women but many young people impressing on them as “tomorrows’ leaders to be more open minded and also innovative in the kind of solutions we must have in managing our environment”. The world has changed and right now we are experiencing the worst effects of climate change. Therefore, solutions that have not worked in the past need to be further interrogated and new thought processes devised quickly. Without wanting to sound like a prophet of doom, it is imperative to emphasize that if we fail to act quickly, indices show we are headed for gloom.

At the 4th Global Meeting of the Mountain Partnership in Turkey

At the 4th Global Meeting of the Mountain Partnership in Turkey

In my short life-time I have seen rivers dried, destroyed, polluted or just regulated in a fashion that is not sustainable at all. Similarly I have seen forests vanish with no room of either reforesting or restoring. Since I am also passionate about wetlands, I have also seen these amazing ecosystems – which are usually referred to as the “Lungs of the Earth”, drained or totally destroyed.

It is on this premise that early in 2016 I decided to set up a network called the Network of African Women Environmentalists – NAWE. This network ideally is a network to bring together environmentalists across the continent from the very local community to the political level to be able to find solutions for Africa’s environmental crisis. I personally believe, that we are in crisis at the moment across the continent with levels of deforestation, pollution, destruction, degradation of ecosystems – rivers, lakes, grasslands and forests – all of which sustain our very livelihoods. I feel that women really are the change agents. Look at what Prof. Wangari Maathai did for Kenya. Her voice resonated right across the continent but somehow after her passing the momentum was either lost or simply stalled.

This is our moment to arise and be the change the continent needs.

Video courtesy of Ariel Medrid UNEP upload 2013


All of us at Team LR were amazed and humbled at the work this daughter of Zambia is doing. She is doing so much with her team, to preserve our planet. It is very humbling that despite the global impact of her job, Musonda enjoys simple everyday hobbies which include writing, hiking, traveling, cooking and not unexpectedly, painting because she sure needs to translate a lot of what she sees and envisions into multiple media of expression. If Musonda is not different from any of us as evidenced by her simplicity, what are we waiting for? Come on; let us contribute to saving our Earth’s – Lungs, Heart, Kidneys and all today in our own small but sure ways. Remember, Dr. Mumba’s clarion call “this is our moment to arise and be the change the continent and indeed our World needs”. Drop us a comment as you rise. Next week is another date.

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