Huge pressure on the Okavango River Basin

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As riparian states increasingly turn to the Okavango River to support their growing populations and economies, the health of the Okavango River Basin is being threatened. To manage the basin co-operatively as a whole, the three Okavango Basin states – Angola, Namibia and Botswana – signed an agreement in 1994 to form the Permanent Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM) aimed at developing an integrated basin-wide management plan, reports Nils Odendaal of the Namibia Nature Foundation.

The majority of large rivers in Southern Africa are shared by three or more countries, and as the region’s water resources come under growing development pressure, the importance of establishing effective national and regional methods and institutions for managing these resources in a sustainable way will increase significantly. From economic, ecological and human welfare perspectives, the Okavango River Basin is arguably one of the most important transboundary natural resources in the region. Owing to the basin’s remoteness and history of conflict, the Okavango was spared many of the destructive developments that other rivers in the region have suffered. As a result, the relatively pristine Okavango ecosystem continues to provide significant benefits to the region, much as it has done for centuries. However, as riparian states increasingly turn to the Okavango to support their growing populations and economies, the health of the Okavango River Basin is threatened, and it is clear that action is needed to manage the basin co-operatively as a whole.

Partly in response to such perceived threats, the three Okavango Basin states – Angola, Namibia and Botswana – signed an agreement in 1994 that formed the Permanent Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM). In addition to committing the riparian states to managing the Okavango River based on the principles of equity, sustainability and openness, the 1994 OKACOM agreement requires the Commission to develop an integrated basin-wide management plan. Because the Okavango is one of the first international river basins in Southern Africa with a functioning river-basin commission that includes all riparian states, the significance of OKACOM establishing a regional precedent for managing the river in a participatory and sustainable manner cannot be overstated.

One of the expressed goals of OKACOM, and one of the key recommendations from the first phase of OKACOM’s work, is that stakeholders should have an opportunity to be involved in upcoming phases of the OKACOM process. OKACOM has stated that “the success of the planning exercise will depend on [stakeholders] as much as on the efforts of government and specialists”, and that [stakeholders’] positive collaboration … has to be formalised at an early stage.” The acknowledged need for stakeholder participation in the OKACOM planning process is based on the sound premise that unless the planning process incorporates the views and concerns of all stakeholders, and unless stakeholders are involved along the way, the eventual management plan would not accurately reflect the basin situation, and implementation of the plan would suffer from a lack of understanding and broad support.

Ensuring the sustainable management of the Okavango River Basin will require more than simply signing a treaty among basin governments on how to share water and other resources. “Management” of the resource is made up of countless discrete decisions and actions, from international treaties to a local farmer’s daily decision of where to take his/her cattle to graze. Both levels of actions have the independent or collective capacity to impact the river basin significantly. Effective management of the river basin, therefore, will require all those who utilise it to share the responsibility of managing it.

The Every River Has Its People project is aimed at applying the concept of co-management to the Okavango River Basin. There are four levels of ongoing management-related activities in the Okavango River Basin. At the highest regional level, OKACOM is conducting the basinwide management planning process. At the next level, governments are engaged in national planning activities (e.g. Namibia is conducting a water-sector analysis and Botswana has launched planning efforts for Ramsar and a National Wetlands Policy). At provincial level, regional institutions are undertaking water projects (e.g. the Ngamiland District Council in Botswana is constructing water supply pipelines along the Okavango Delta). Finally, at local level, riparian towns, villages and farming ventures are busy securing water for residents’ daily use and agricultural developments. With these multiple layers of management, there is one interwoven element – the people who live in the basin – and one theme that could tie the levels of effort together – participation.

In response to these challenges, stakeholders from the Okavango River Basin mobilised, in association with local NGOs and in partnership with Government, the Every River Has Its People project.

The overall goal of the project is to promote the sustainable management of natural resources in the Okavango River Basin for the benefit of basin residents and states, through promoting and facilitating the effective participation of basin stakeholders in natural resource decision-making and management, particularly related to water resources.

The process of increasing the capacity of communities and other local stakeholders is a two-way one that could be described as co-learning, since the project uses the information gained for input into the materials and methods used for capacity building and for creating mechanisms of participation.

Thus at the same time that the capacity of communities is increased and participation mechanisms are created, relevant decision-makers and policy implementers acquire a better grasp of community perspectives and the issues surrounding Okavango River Basin resources.

Co-management involves the shared management of natural resources by those who have an official obligation to do so, namely Government and those who live with and use the resources, including local communities and the private sector. The objectives of the Every River Has Its People project are two-fold:

• To increase the capacity of Okavango riparian communities

and other stakeholders to participate in co-management of the Okavango;

• To create mechanisms by which communities and other stakeholders may participate in sustainable management of the Okavango River Basin.

The project is implemented by NGOs in Angola, Botswana and Namibia. Project partners include the Association of Conservation for Environment and Integrated Rural Development in Angola; the Kalahari Conservation Society and IUCN in Botswana; and the NNF (Namibia Nature Foundation), the IRNDC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation), the DRFN (Desert Research Foundation of Namibia) and Rössing Foundation in Namibia.

Significant progress toward achieving the goal of this project has already been achieved in the following areas:

• Stakeholders (community, civil society and government) living in the Okavango River Basin now have a better understanding of the basin as a whole. This has been achieved though a series of socio-ecological surveys that have been conducted, the results of which have been fed back to stakeholders and published in various formats. Other information packages have also been developed, including posters, booklets and pamphlets aimed at educating stakeholders of the Okavango basin on natural resource-related issues.

• Local communities have elected representatives to serve on a basin-wide community forum. This forum now has direct link to OKACOM and is recognised by the river-basin authority as the representation of the grass-roots people. Local communities are thus better able to have a direct impact on the development agenda of the Okavango basin.

• Communities have mobilised to start implementing their own natural resource management projects and several CBRNM activities, such as the formation of conservancies, have started in the Okavango Bas

This article appeared in the 2003/4 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.



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