When Okavango flows

SHARE   |   Monday, 20 June 2016   |   By Keitebe Kgosikebatho
When Okavango flows

Like a father, working in the diaspora, who only comes home occasionally to be met by a delighted family, the Okavango Delta undergoes this personified experience every year when it flows down south from the Angolan high lands. The Okavango Delta enjoys seasonal flooding as a resultant of summer (January–February) rainfall from the Angola highlands and the surge flows 1,200 kilometres in approximately one month. The waters then spread over the 250 km by 150 km area of the delta over the next four months (March–June). The flood peaks between June and August, during Botswana’s dry winter months, when the delta swells to three times its permanent size, attracting animals from kilometres around and creating one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife.

As much as winter is deemed a sad and banal season in most parts of Botswana because of its harsh weather, in the North western parts of Botswana the heavy feelings are usually taken off by the arrival of waters into local streams. Not so long people were sharing pictures on different social media platforms from different parts of the Ngamiland posing beside streaks of water ways flowing into local rivers and sometime a fully ballooned but serene stream flowing peacefully. In Ngamiland villages, especially the tourism resort town of Maun, people literally flock to the river banks to witness the first streams of water passing through, and for some, this literally mean in their backyards or it can even mean that their houses will be washed away.

This longstanding tradition has been in existence for years. This euphoria and excitement that is brought about by the flooding of rivers is perhaps not surprising, as the river has been a source of livelihood for most residents of Maun and other parts of the region. The peak season of the tourism sector for example begin this season; this consequently means most individuals start packing, in preparation of leaving for work in luxury safari camps which are situated deep in the delta. Some of these camps close shop when business is at its lowest only to start trading around this time of the year. Since most of the camps are only accessible by air, the Maun International Airport is usually the busiest around this time too. Small Cessna planes that crowd the airport can be seen doing numerous trips to and fro, ferrying safari suits clad tourists and safari camp workers.

Though the tourism resort town of Maun never runs out of tourists going about town, buying small necessities to take with into the delta, looking for internet hot spots, sightseeing, or simply marvelling at local donkeys and goats which usually go about the town’s shops as if they own them (a been there, done that t-shirt in local curio shops with a donkey emoticon and Maun written underneath exists), it is during this time of the year that they become even more visible in town. Boat cruising has of recent become popular, especially among domestic tourists. So as the water levels increase and river dry patches are closed in by the arriving waters, the now popular sport take ground and due to competitive prices charged by both lodges and individual boat owners more and more people are afforded the chance to see the beauty of the local river.

The lack of recreational parks in Maun has rendered the town’s entertainment scene almost hopeless, especially for teetotallers, but with the river flowing to the brim, everybody is spoiled for choice. The river banks are usually a hit among locals who usually frequent them to either relax with their family and friends, host picnics and small braais, or to wash their cars (though not permissible by law). Fishing is also one activity that gets its boost from the increased water flowing into Ngamiland. While others do it for subsistence purposes or even for fun (hobby), this activity has proven to be a cash cow for many. The flowing of water into Lake Ngami for example gave birth to a multi-million Pula fishing industry, which saw local tilapia exported to as far as DRC. Molapo Farming, (flood recession farming) which contributes substantially to rural livelihoods by providing better yields than rain-fed dry land farming, is obviously dependent on the amount of water brought along by the river.

But much as the river brings happiness, it sometimes also brings along misfortunes for local communities. The Department of Water Affairs earlier this year alerted the Government of possible floods as water levels at Kavango and Zambezi Rivers which feed into Chobe and Okavango Rivers were rising rapidly and are above normal even more than previous years. This prompted the National disaster Management (NDMO) office and NGOs to raise alarm and be on standby as communities living on the periphery of the river might be submerged. An official from the NDMO, however, indicated that as it is currently the situation is just normal albeit being monitored. He said that they monitor levels daily through the Department of Water Affairs which records water levels daily.Reports from the Okavango Research Institute indicate that though the Okavango delta is generally experiencing a dry season, which normally last for 10 years or more years, water levels recorded at Mohembo indicate that the delta floods from the Angola Highlands are higher than last year.

According to Professor Joseph Mbaiwa of the Okavango Research Institute (ORI) delta water levels fluctuates, and its impact on the tourism sector varies according to season and location of the tourism enterprise. Mbaiwa was of the view that though currently water levels are reportedly higher than last year, it can either be good or bad for the tourism sector, good if the establishments themselves are not directly affected; by either being submerged and still accessible or can still offer services to their clients and bad when now they are forced to close shop due to high levels of water or the conditions render their services hard to offer. Cases of drowning are also at their peak when water levels go up. This can either be due to an increase in water based activities like fishing and boat cruising, or simple river crossing from one end to the other by communities living along them.

Kgosi Maedze Maedze of Seronga also confirmed that the river flow this year has not done much disruptions and damage to his village. According to Kgosi Maedze, if anything the river has brought about good returns. He noted that those who survived by fishing have been able to ply their trade without much complaints as high water levels sometimes meant they are not able to fish. Seronga village is also host to Mbiromba Camp – a base for the Seronga Polers; locals who offer day- and/or overnight trips to tourists using the traditional Mokoro. According to Kgosi Maedze, it is when the water ways are normal like currently that they are able to attract business.