Mission: Saving the Okavango Delta

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One of the world's few inland deltas, the Okavango, is facing pressure on several fronts. Three states with differing needs must cooperate to save it for future generations.

Botswana has in recent decades often been [spoken of as an African success story. Stable, reliable and wealthy. Soon after independence in 1966, diamonds were discovered under its desert sands, and consecutive governments have used the revenues to build today's Botswana, where most development indicators point upwards.

The reserves of the precious stones are dwindling, however, and few expect it to last more than another 20 years. Something must take the diamonds' place to ensure Botswana's continued prosperity The most obvious contender, and the apparent choice of the government, is tourism.

Botswana boasts an abundance of wildlife, the dramatic Kalahari Desert, and the Okavango Delta, one of the most delicate aquatic ecosystems in the world. The delta is a favoured destination of well-off safari tourists seeking remoteness and unique experiences. Catering to the top-end tourist bracket is a conscious choice of the government who fears that mass tourism would hurt the delta's intricate ecosystem.

Maintaining and developing luxury eco-tourism in the delta is dependent on that it stays what it is, relatively intact. However, that in turn depends on the water steadily flowing in every year. The Okavango Delta is end station for the Okavango (called the Cubango in Angola, Kavango in Nambia) that originates in the central Angolan highlands. The water travels through the three countries before it spreads through the fan-shaped delta. Botswana is the beneficiary of enourmous masses of water, as much as 95 per cent of the delta's water comes from Angola.

'Within our boundaries, what water we can call ours is very little. So what we have is shared.' says Tracy S. Molemi, Deputy Director of International Waters at Botswana's Department of Water Affairs.

While Angola is by far the biggest contributor to the Okavango, it is also the smallest user of its water. Its neighbours recognise that rebuilding the country after the long civil war that ended in 2002 brings with it a need for energy development, in Angola's case hydropower. Namibia has also said it wants to tap more of the Kavango's water for its own national needs.

The fear in Botswana is that extensive hydropower development upstream will lead to diminishing flows into the Delta. 'A high development scenario would kill the delta,' comments Dr. Ebenizario Chonguica, Executive Secretary of the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM) that groups Angola. Botswana and Namibia.

Following a Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis (TDA) completed in 2011, OKACOM has worked on a Strategic Action Programme for the Cubango-Okavango River basin. In this process, a variety of low- and high-development scenarios were set up to try and predict how the Delta would react.

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