The future of the country’s top tourism revenue spot and eco-diversity hub, the Okavango Delta, could be at risk as studies suggest countries upstream of the World Heritage Site are diverting the rivers that feed the Delta, cutting its inflows and eroding its tourism value.
The Okavango River basin, stretching from the Angolan highlands through Namibia and on to Botswana is facing an unprecedented disaster, with some environmental analysts already warning that the Okavango Delta is dying.
Reports from the tourism heartland indicate that Angola, where the rivers feeding the Delta originate, is possibly diverting waters for mega-scale agricultural projects, as citizens there have complained that their nation “simply watches” rivers flow by to create millions of pula for Botswana via the Delta tourists.
A shock drop in the level of Thamalakane River last season appears to have been Botswana’s first clue of possible diversions upstream. Experts ruled out drought and seasonal factors as the reasons for the drop in inflows, pointing to the dramatic fall in allocation from the up river sources. Last season, the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), incurred millions of pula in the costs of interventions to supply Maun, after Thamalakane River, which is fed by the Delta, dried up in a record dry spell. WUC acting CEO, Mmetla Masire told Mmegi that an investigation was underway as diversion of rivers upstream of the Delta was strongly suspected.
“The indication is that the water flow has reduced and that’s why Maun had a situation. We believe the water is being channelled away up river. “This season we saw Maun with a serious situation and the behaviour of the river showed that something was not normal.
“It’s a concern and there’s a team working on that, but nothing has been finalised. “We are still investigating as to what happened and why the water is not reaching Maun in its usual quantities. We are investigating the drop in full allocation. “It could be due to anything and to be fair, we don’t know,” Masire said.
He added that under the shared water rights agreement housed under the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM), countries were duty-bound to inform each other of any possible diversions or damming of rivers in the basin. Established in 1994, OKACOM has the authority to “conduct investigations related to water infrastructure”.
The OKACOM states are Botswana, Angola and Namibia. “If a diversion is found, we would lodge a complaint with the Commission which would decide on whether to set up a task team to investigate,” Masire said.
An authoritative source within the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources said the level of diversion needed up river for a noticeable change in Thamalakane would only be “on the scale done by governments.
“It will not be farmers, whether commercial or otherwise. It will be a government sponsored project of quite some magnitude or several of them,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
Naidu Kurugundla of Maun Water Affairs said for this year’s Okavango flooding, which started in September and is expected to end next month, the entire Delta system received less than 10,000 million cubic metres of water from Angola. He explained that only 8,000 cubic metres of water has reached Botswana from the Angolan highlands where the floods originate.
Already, residents of Maun have been told to prepare for another crunching dry spell, as rivers in the areas are declining rapidly.
Founder and Project Leader of Okavango Wilderness Project (OWP), Steve Boyes who has led research expeditions through the entire river basin, weighed into the debate. In 2015 Boyes led a National Geographic expedition using mekoro from the source of the Cuito River in Angola through Namibia to the end of the Okavango River basin at Lake Xau in Botswana.
Speaking to Mmegi, Boyes, who has just completed another expedition through the Delta, said water was being pumped from the Okavango River basin. He said competing needs in other countries were rising to the fore.
“The low water levels on the Thamalakane River are alarming. More and more water is being pumped from the Okavango River Basin each year.
“The fact is that currently Angola, where almost all of this water comes from, and Namibia, benefit very little from the waters of the Okavango River, while Botswana earns hundreds of millions of dollars from a thriving tourism industry built around the Okavango, Kwando and Chobe Rivers in northern Botswana,” Boyes said.
During the years Botswana was busy protecting the Okavango Delta and developing policies to gain from tourism in the area, Angola was steeped in 27 years of civil war and border wars that also affected Namibia. The largest tank battles in Africa since the Second World War were fought in the Okavango’s Angolan catchment areas.
Today, the Okavango River Basin is the world’s largest undeveloped river basin and Boyes says Angola and Namibia are desperate to achieve energy, food and water security.
“We know that Sinohydro, a Chinese company, has established a large municipal water pump scheme in Cuito Cuanavale on the Cuito River. There are numerous agricultural developments along the Cubango River that are drawing more and more water. The Okavango River in the Caprivi Strip has the highest density of pumps in the river with some large pump schemes supplying water to large-scale agricultural developments,” he said.
Another environmentalist based in Namibia, John Mandelsohn shared Boyes sentiments. Mandelsohn co-authored the book Okavango River - The Flow Of Line to with Selma el Obeid.
Speaking to Mmegi from Namibia, Mandelsohn attributed the causes of the receding levels in the Okavango Delta to a number of factors including a post-war developmental boom in Angola, drought in Namibia and lack of discussion and engagement by Botswana which is the major beneficiary in the river basin.
“The economic situation in Angola is forcing Angolans to look at the river as a source of life. Since Angola, especially the Okavango catchment area, was left out of developments due to the war, the opening up of the area means more needs for water and some of the draining projects in those areas are not known by the Angolan government,” said Mandelsohn.
Namibia is also facing dire drought and the country is said to be already using the Okavango waters in major irrigation projects that are adversely affecting the Delta. Mandelsohn blamed Botswana for not being worried about activities in the catchment area despite being the principal beneficiary of the river basin.
“Botswana is not showing some urgency and is not really worried about what is going on in Angola and Namibia.”
Both Mandelsohn and Boyes believe all is not lost and there are solutions that could be employed to save the Delta.
Mandelsohn said Botswana needed to initiate dialogue with nations along the river basin on how to share benefits from the Okavango. At the moment Botswana expects Angola and Namibia to let the water pass and benefit alone from the Okavango Delta, without sharing with countries at the catchment.
Boyes said some initiatives were already underway however. “By February next year, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project team would have deployed over 40 environmental sensor platforms that measure climatic conditions, water quality and flow rate at important points throughout the Okavango River Basin in all three countries.”
“These sensor platforms will upload this environmental data in real-time via satellite. Each government will have access to this data and be able to track fluctuations in water extraction based on rainfall measurements and discharge models for the Cuito and Cubango Rivers.”
“Once we can measure how much water is coming down the river each year and where it comes from, we can start considering a ‘water bond’ paid by the governments of all three countries for water use, setting quotas and limits of acceptable change,” he said.
Boyes also added that there is an urgent need to establish a thriving wildlife tourism industry in the Okavango and Kwando River Basins in Angola and Namibia. He said Botswana should demonstrate to Angolans and Namibians that conservation and tourism development can be the economic drivers of the Okavango River’s catchment areas.
For his part, Edwin Mosimanyane, a hydrologist at the Okavango Research Institute expressed doubt that the low levels of the Delta could be due to damming or diversions up river. “I have heard of a rice project in Angola which draws water from the Okavango, but I don’t believe it would cause a massive drop in the water levels of the basin,” he said.
Mosimanyane said in his opinion the low levels are due to internal Delta processes.
“Any suggestion of water abstraction should be backed by research. We cannot use figures of one year to determine that there is water conversion upstream. We can only arrive at that conclusion after observing the levels for more than a year,” he said.
Mosimanyane stated that the low levels are part of the Delta’s seasonal flood variations, which can be attributed to factors such as climate change. Answers to the conundrum are expected once the WUC finalises its investigations.