What happens when the sustenance of a town ceases to exist? Maun is facing its worst drought in recent history and there are already victims. But this is only the beginning of the cruellest natural catastrophe. Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES reports on the disastrous failure of the once glorious Thamalakane River in Maun
MAUN: Five hippos and at least 18 crocodiles are trapped in a small pool in the middle of Maun. And time is running out for the beasts because the water, which is their only shelter, is quickly drying up. Maun is facing one of the driest periods in many decades.
Thamalakane River is as dry as a bone. The annual flooding from the Okavango Delta that normally arrives around the months of May and June has not come this year.
So now all the western rivers that discharge water out of the Okavango Delta are dry. Besides a few deep pools that remain with a few weeks of water left in them, Thamakalane River has completely dried. And the future looks bleak for the river that is the lifeline of Maun.
The trapped hippos in the middle of town are not free to leave the pool because of human traffic. Outside the pools there is not enough grazing grass. The cattle, donkeys and goats are salvaging on the dry grass around the riverbed.
There are no pools nearby that they could migrate to. Moving has been made even more difficult because of a nearby construction site that is revamping the old Matlapana Bridge – popularly known as Old Bridge.
During the day the pool attracts dozens of people from Maun and transit tourists staying in town. Unfortunately amongst these spectators, there are unruly elements that keep deliberately agitating these hippos to make them come out of the water.
Some have resorted to dangerous games like making bets on who can touch a sun-basking crocodile – some of which are as long as five-metres. With no grass to feed their fat bellies, violent competition for food in a small drying pool and human irritation, the hippos have already begun to eliminate each other.
The situation is so bad that some extraordinary measures like the feeding of hippos by Old Bridge Backpackers management have begun. Jethro Sandenbergh, the 32-year-old manager at Old Bridge Backpackers whose property is adjacent to the crowded pool, reports how a big male hippo recently brutally killed a baby hippo.
The dead hippo was manna for the float of crocodiles that are squeezed into the small pool with hippos and Sandenbergh says they took it upon themselves to help the dire situation of the animals.
Sandenbergh provides a daily supply of bales of hay to the hippos.
“We use our money to buy this hay for the hippos to help their plight,” he says.
Old Bridge Backpackers is also assisting with pumping water into the pool. The peculiar measures by these concerned citizens are a temporary salvation for the beasts that are part of the many victims of the dried Thamalakane River.
Last week the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, issued a spot announcement warning that other hippos were also trapped in a drying pool in Maun at Shashe Ward.
“The public is
“Furthermore, parents are advised to ensure that children do not play near those lagoons where a lot of crocodiles are trapped by the mud.”
Efforts to get information on what Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) is doing to deal with the situation were unsuccessful as the department heads in Gaborone said they were waiting for the status report from the Maun office.
During its heydays, Thamalakane River bustled with water sport activities. There were constant roaring engines of boats with ecstatic screams of passengers enjoying the rides. There would be silent mekoro gliding past the river’s shallow sides, riding slow and smooth. There would be many at Matlapana beach doing the shaora – swimming. But everything is dead now.
At Matlapana, which is usually the hive of water sport activities, some boats have been abandoned on the empty riverbed. One of the boats abandoned is the prominent 50-seater boat – the largest passenger boat in Maun – which belongs to Gateway Outsource.
Gateway’s managing director, Chandy Moruti says the drying of the river “caught us by surprise” because there were no forecasts about the water situation.
He says the situation has adversely affected business and led to the retrenchment of some of his staff.
“We had to let go of three boat drivers because of the situation. We have moved some of the boats to Chanoga on the Boteti River where there are bigger pools with water.
“We are also planning to relocate the bigger boat to perennial rivers like Chobe in Kasane.”
Many natives of Maun say it is their first time to experience such a terrible drought where the flood does not reach Thamalakane River.
Omponye Mareje, a 43-year-old fisherman, remembers drought years where the river was dry, but the flood always arrived.
Quizzed on why he thinks this is happening, the fisherman who says he has spent all his life next to the River, believes the situation is the result of natural disasters.
“Ke dibetso tsa tholego.”
Mmegi has collaborated with the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) to investigate this terrible water situation in the Okavango Delta. The NGOWP is conducting an annual survey through the Okavango Delta to study the impact of the lowest water levels in decades on wetland birds, aquatic wildlife like hippos and crocodiles, general wildlife, aquatic ecosystems, water quality and flow, bats, and fish populations. Follow the research expedition with #okavango19 across social media.
This report was made possible by Mmegi with special thanks to the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project.