The water crisis of 2015/16, the drying up of Gaborone Dam and the worst drought in 35 years in the south, remain painful reminders of why a stitch in time saves nine. Eager to avoid a repeat, authorities involved in water planning are even reaching across the desert to the Atlantic. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes
Prior to the record-breaking dry years, beginning in 2014 and intensifying into the worst drought in 35 years in 2015, authorities involved in the water sector would have been satisfied with their long term planning.
After all, potentially, they were sitting on hundreds of millions of cubic metres of supply per year, deep into the future, from riparian agreements they had already inked such as the Chobe Zambezi transfer scheme and the Lesotho Highlands project.
As one official said at the time, the most important aspect of water planning is to secure riparian rights, which form the basis for future supply. In other words, whenever Botswana has seen an opportunity to secure regional water supply, it has jumped at the chance with the goal being to quickly secure the rights.
As shown by the Chobe Zambezi and Lesotho Highlands, the lag between signing the shared water agreements and actual implementation can be quite long, guided by the national water masterplan and subsequent reviews. The Chobe Zambezi dates back to the early 2000s, while the Lesotho Highlands goes as far back as the late 1950s, with Botswana’s involvement only confirmed three years ago.
The delays are usually caused by issues of cost, complex legal arrangements, the involvement of sovereign and sometimes competing state parties and the sheer size of these projects. In addition, the projects are usually designed to be for forecast long-term demand, a window of up to 35 years.
The crisis of 2014 to 2016 however, checked this approach to water planning. Gaborone Dam dried up for the first time, water ran out around the country and investors were shaken. Amongst a range of counter-measures, then president, Ian Khama authorised the outlay of P1 billion in 2015 to fast-track various water projects, including the bringing forward of the Chobe Zambezi scheme from 2030.
His successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, in his first State of the Nation Address recently, said the scheme, which will bring 495 million cubic metres of water per year to irrigation schemes in the northwest and domestic supply in the drought-prone South, will be up and running in six years. Hydrological experts, including those at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology, are generally agreed that the country has reached its “capacity” for major dams. Besides the existing dams, future supplies will have to come from groundwater and crossborder schemes.
This may explain the renewed pace governing the latest crossborder riparian agreement secured by government, the planned investment into a desalination plant in Namibia. This particular project will see the development of a desalination plant at Swakopmund on Namibia’s Atlantic Coast, with the water pumped to Windhoek and Gaborone, the latter a distance of more than 1,400 kilometres.
The new pace is not necessarily about spades in the ground, but rather clearing all the complex studies, agreements and inter-country arrangements that have to be done before designs and funding proposals can be
Attorney Generals of both countries have reportedly given clearance for preliminary paperwork on the bilateral deal and the joint technical committee is due to sit soon to approve terms of reference. Early next year, ministers from both countries are expected to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. A German-funded feasibility study is underway to establish whether the project should involve buying an existing desalination plant, or opt for a new one. “The idea is to have a plant at Swakopmund on the coast, supplying the coastal areas, Windhoek and Gaborone,” explains Namibia’s deputy permanent secretary of agriculture, water and forestry, Abraham Nehemia.“From Swakopmund, those supplies would run to Windhoek through a series of reservoirs and pumps, then onward to Gaborone. “It’s early days yet to know the capacity of the project; that will come from the design, which is why the feasibility study is key.
“The study will show us the design and the costs.
“As for whether it should be the existing or the old, I would expect that the existing will not have enough capacity.”
As optimistic as both countries are, the project is fraught with major challenges. Besides its sheer scale, which involves building a 1,400 kilometre pipeline across two deserts (the Namib and the Kalahari), the likely costs mean end users may simply be unable to afford the drops coming out on the Gaborone side of the pipeline. There’s also the matter of geography.
“Windhoek alone is 1,112 metres above sea level and that’s quite a lot of energy required to pump that water from the coast at Swakopmund,” Nehemia says.
“At least Windhoek to Gaborone is downhill, but you still need pressure breaks. We will know in the next 18 to 24 months when the study is complete.”
Mines in western and central Botswana are potential customers for the water. Namibia is already using desalinated water, along its coast, although for non-potable uses. The potable supplies are first blended with other supplies.
At home, the focus is on signing the MoU.
“We are both looking for a suitable date on which to sign the MoU,” says deputy permanent secretary in the Water Ministry, Dr Obolokile Obakeng.
“Our thinking is to say if we are exposed to extreme aridity and our large water transfer scheme and aquifers fail, then there are options to look at.
“All countries look at the strategic resources around them so that in future, agreements made now only need to be firmed up.”
The new pace allows consumers in Gaborone to picture a massive pipeline of desalinated Atlantic Ocean water running across two deserts, within a few years. If it proves feasible, that is.