The clock is ticking towards the final hour. In less than a year, Botswana will know if the Okavango Delta (OD) qualifies to be inscribed on the World Heritage list.
Will the green alluvial fan meet the criteria of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) in accordance with the requirements of the 1972 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Convention?
This is the question that was on the lips of many as the inhabitants of Ngamiland commemorated World Tourism Day last Friday.
The theme of the day, "Tourism and Water Protection Our Common Future," carried more meaning for them. The waters of the Okavango Delta are a heritage from the gods and a life source. Without this precious liquid flowing from upper Angola, past Namibia and into the panhandle in northwestern Botswana, there is no inland delta, no tourism, no jobs and no natural resources to sustain their lives.
Of course, there are policies, projects and programmes that the Botswana government has put in place to preserve the pristine state of this 'miracle in a desert' for the benefit of future generations. But are these efforts enough to protect this RAMSAR site and world's last-remaining marine and terrestrial wilderness?
According to the International Consevatuion Union (IUCN), "The future of the Okavango Delta (OD) is not limited to Botswana alone. The actions of Angola and Namibia upstream will have an impact on the water that finally feeds the Delta." This is not the only remark that this international conservation union has passed. "The OD is further threatened by the use of the basin's resources for development purposes, including large-scale irrigated agriculture, mining and domestic use, both upstream and around the Delta," IUCN has also noted.
Now that a warning bell has been rung concerning the issues that might frustrate Botswana's dream of seeing the wetland becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), what mitigation measures has the country put in place?
Research carried out by the Okavango Research Institute states that as of 2006, more that 120,000 tourists have annually flocked into this 16,000m2 untamed wilderness of biodiversity to witness its ecstatic beauty. Botswana Tourism Board states that tourist arrivals are currently growing at the rate of 8, 4% annually. This is important because tourism is the second backbone of Botswana's economy. This makes the inscription of the jewel of the Kalahari crucial to nation
Namibian-based Damir Dijakovic, who is a UNESCO Specialist in Culture, recently told a media workshop in Maun: "The inscription of the OD as a UNESCO WHS will not only give the alluvial fan more exposure to the international community as a tourism destination of international significance. The OD will gain additional local and international investment into eco-tourism development, conservation, local empowerment, research as well as uplift the livelihoods of indigenous people through the sustainable use of natural resources. "
Consultant Pascal Taruvinga, also of UNESCO, told another workshop on the inscription of the OD as a WHS that he facilitated in March last year: "The future of the OD lies not only in sound scientific input, it also lies in how that scientific input is translated into political will when compared to other needs of the countries involved."
Taruvinga advised: "Transnational properties require common understanding and collaboration. Therefore, Botswana has to dialogue with Namibia and Angola and a consensus of tentative listing the whole river basin reached."
As present, very little of the Cuito and Cubango sub-catchments in Angola are formally protected. The Okavango River rises on the Bie' Plateau near Haumbo in remote central Angola. Most of the Angolan catchment is uninhabited due to 30-odd years of border conflict and civil war. Land mines are now being removed and people, livestock and wildlife are moving back into this remote region.
Profits from sub-Saharan Africa's second largest oil producer are driving infrastructural development in much of Angola. Today, the Okavango Delta is faced by threats of new dam developments to support irrigation schemes and the agricultural development in the catchment area.
The waters of the Okavango travel over 1000km from source before they cross into the Caprivi Strip where the Namibian government sees this mighty river as a natural source for generating power and irrigated agriculture. Namibia has repeatedly proposed a hydro-electric weir across the Okavango River at Popa Falls, which would seriously impact on the OD
Even though the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM) and its capacity building arm, the Southern Africa Regional Environmental Programme (SAREP), has come up with an Integrated Management Plan for the whole river basin, little is currently hoped for in the success of its implementation due to the emerging economy of Angola and the political instability of most African nations.
Said a spokesman of the Angolan High Commission, Gracy Santos, when interviewed during last year's regional workshop in Maun: "Botswana has consulted us on its intentions to inscribe the OD as a WHS and we are willing to help that dream come true. However, the issue of the OD becoming a WHS is a complicated story as long as the ecosystem's life depends on the flow from my country for its existence.
"In Angola, we are still recovering from the effects of war. "Poverty is rampant. New laws to improve the economy are put in placefrom time to time, and it is difficult to convince our policymakers to let the water flow freely into Botswana while projects can be raised that can draw water from the system to improve livelihoods."
On several websites, environmentalists are advocating a tri-national World Heritage Status for the Okavango Delta and the river basin as a whole. Scientist Steve Boyes wrote in the Explorers Journal: "We need three countries - Angola Botswana and Namibia - to agree to protect the entire Kavango Basin for future generations, preserving an unimpeded, natural flow for the Okavango River in perpetuity."
Ecologist Karen Ross of the Okavango World Heritage project commented: "What a wonderful designation for the Okavango Delta if it is recognised as a Natural World Heritage Site! There can be no better branding and marketing tool for communities and businesses involved in tourism, a sector which provides about 70% of livelihoods in the region. Further, within Botswana there is also greater need for protection, for instance mining is not permitted in any World Heritage sites."
Over the last five years, there have been several stories of mining companies prospecting for shale gas, coal, diamonds and copper in the Okavango Delta.
Signs of water pollution due to sewage leaks from lodges and boat traffic have also been noted. Environmentalists say mining will not only impede on the conservation, peace and serenity of the ecosystem. It will also pollute the pure waters of the green oasis. This, they fear, will cause the relocation and extinction of a vast number of fauna and flora species.
Currently, the OD supports 140,000 indigenous people, 150 species of mammals, over 500 species of birds, 90 species of fish, as well as plants, reptiles, invertebrates and amphibians.
Getrude Matswiri, who is the Monument Officer for Botswana's northwest region, says she is aware that mineral prospecting licences have been issued within the OD. However, while some expired in 2010, some will lose their validity this year while others will become null and void in 2015. "The government has no intention of renewing any of them," Matswiri says.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, while retaining its sovereign status, has 189 state parties monitoring the property through the Convention. The World Heritage Convention has more member states than any other UN Convention, and it is party to international law.