Does the Okavango Delta belong to the people who live along its banks and whose very livelihoods depend on the wetland resources of water, fish, reeds, water lilies and grazing? Or is it Botswana’s national treasure, contributing 9.5% annually to the country’s GDP mainly through tourism? Does it belong to the international community, as the world’s largest Ramsar site supporting a rich biodiversity of wildlife in a mosaic of wetland habitats? Or does it belong to the three riparian countries that share the river?
The bulk of the water originates upstream in Angola and passes along the north-eastern edge of Namibia, supporting development in the Kavango Region before entering the delta through the panhandle. Surely Angolans and Namibians have a stake in this debate based on treaties, protocols and agreements?
This question led to lively discussions at the 2008 international wetland conference where the theme for World Wetland Day – Healthy Rivers, Healthy People – was adapted for Botswana to read Healthy Wetlands, Healthy People. The conference also saw the official launch of the Okavango Delta Management Plan (ODMP) and the permanent secretariat for the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission, OKACOM.
Established in 1994, OKACOM is one of the oldest river-basin commissions in Southern Africa. It serves to advise the governments of Angola, Namibia and Botswana on water-related issues pertinent to the joint management of the Okavango River Basin. The establishment of a permanent secretariat for OKACOM in Maun is an important milestone in OKACOM activities. OKACOM seeks to promote cross-border co-operation and co-ordination to ensure environmentally sustainable regional water-resources development.
As populations grow and more people settle alongside the Okavango River and its tributaries, pressures on the wetland systems within the Okavango Basin increase. Namibia, Botswana and Angola must co-operate to deal with issues that range from deforestation, land-mine clearing and resettlement in Angola through increasing demand for water for irrigation, increasing reed harvesting and fishing pressure alongside the river in Namibia to balancing the conservation of the biodiversity-rich Okavango Delta with the natural resource needs of the over forty communities living within the Delta Ramsar area and the expectations of international tourists seeking a ‘pristine wilderness’.
Namibia is in the process of managing the water in the country in ‘basin management areas’ and one of these is the Okavango River Basin. At national level, the task of managing the water and wetland resources of this area will fall to the future Okavango River Basin Management Committee made up of stakeholder representatives who use or depend on the wetland resources of the Okavango River. This national committee will also have an international obligation to collaborate with the other two countries sharing the river and its resources to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of the basin resources.
Each country needs to take into account how a decision in one country affects the other two countries and the system as a whole. To use the words of Dr Tombale, an OKACOM Commissioner from Botswana, “We need to start seeing the river basin as a whole, not as three parts in three countries.”
One of the major challenges requiring international co-operation is Integrated Flow Management for the Okavango Basin to determine how the three riparian countries can best manage the water that flows through this shared wetland system to the best advantage of all three, their development goals and the wetland environment sustained by these river flows.
Attendance of the World Wetland Day events in Botswana allowed the Namibian delegation to share views and gain valuable insight from the experiences of experts on issues related to integrated water resources management pertinent to the Okavango River Basin. The messages they brought home were:
• OKACOM must continue to work together to ensure sound management of the river basin as a whole.
• The Okavango Delta Management Plan process followed by Botswana can teach Namibia much about collaborative and participatory planning involving all different government departments, NGOs and communities living alongside the Okavango River. We need to initiate a similar strategic planning process for Kavango.
• Geographically the river and its wetland resources belong to the community which lives along it, but it has to be managed at international (OKACOM), national (pertinent government departments), regional (Kavango Regional Council) and community (Basin Wide Forum, Conservancies, Every River has its People) levels.
• Data need to be accessible, updated, improved and shared. Ongoing research and monitoring of these precious wetland resources must remain a national priority to form the basis for sound decision-making and international scientific collaboration.
• Integrated Flow Management is an effective tool for managing the basin as a whole and will require a basin-wide approach, requiring Namibia to collaborate with scientists in Botswana and Angola by forming its own integrated flow management team of river experts to work together with the upstream and downstream teams.
• We must recognise that within Namibia the riverine forest along the Okavango River course supports the highest biodiversity of trees in the country and that the river itself supports a rich biodiversity of fish. The riverine forests should be declared ‘strategic forests’ and their biodiversity protected for posterity. Namibia must strengthen collaboration with neighbouring states through the hydrology, biodiversity and institutional task forces of the Okavango Basin Steering Committee.
• Namibia should pass the National Wetland Policy well before the next international Ramsar meeting. The National Wetland Working Group prepared the draft for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (DEA), circulated it widely to all Ministries, and revised and finalised it in 2004. Equitable sharing of benefits is important. It should be a bottom-up approach and should be decentralised.
• Namibia should seriously consider applying to Ramsar to extend the Okavango Ramsar site in Botswana across the border to include the river section between Mukwe and Mohembo.
So, whose delta is it? It was agreed that geographically the delta belongs to the people of Botswana and equally that as a nation they have an international obligation to conserve its biodiversity for the world – a task taken very seriously by Minister Kitso Mokaila of Botswana, who stated clearly, “On conservation there is no compromise,” a statement that resounds across borders. It is Namibia’s delta too, as it is an integral part of the river basin.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.