When the Angolan consulate representative Jose Carlos Daio Silver stood up to express his frustrations over what he says are continuous false accusations leveled at his country of birth over tempering with the Okavango basin water he was clearly an unhappy man. This was after Dr John Mendelsohn of Research and Information Services of Namibia (RAISON) made a presentation on ‘Perspectives and uses of the Okavango River Basin’ in Gaborone on Thursday where he among others outlined future uses of Okavango/Cubango river water in Angola and Namibia. According to the Daio Silver, it always comes as a shock to them to learn from the media that Angola was painted as the ‘bad guy’ in Botswana by the press whenever the Okavango Delta downstream in Botswana dried. “It is really sad to hear people accusing us of such. Angola has no intentions to do bad to Botswana. We never have the intentions to prejudice Botswana,” he insisted.
Though his sentiments may just be dismissed as emotional rumblings of a man who felt cornered in a foreign land in a room full of people who probably harbored the same views he was standing to speak out against, some critics say there is more to this than what meets the eye. According to observers, it is Botswana’s ‘blue eyed boy’ tendencies which often offend other players and often lead to collapse in talks and treaties which might have otherwise benefitted all.
To keep the pristine nature of the Okavango Delta and in order to continue enjoying rewards that comes with it, Botswana is for example expected to tread carefully but her sometimes ‘arrogant’ conduct noted by some is said to be cause for concern. All the water flowing into the Okavango Delta come the Cubango and Cuito rivers and their tributaries in Angola. On its way to Botswana the river water flows through Namibia. Neither Angola nor Namibia gain benefits from the delta. According to Dr Mendelsohn’s presentation both countries (Angola and Namibia) have plans to increase their use of Okavango water before it reaches Botswana. He, however, concurred with the Angolan Consular representative that this was however only intended use and that Angola’s use of the Okavango water has never prejudiced Botswana in the past. According to Mendelsohn, Angola plans to construct a 212,000 hectares dam and several major dams which will all in all get 2,590 million cubic metres from the Okavango basin and that the Cubango water is also expected to supply large private farms and Angolan Cuvelai for water supplies and large irrigation schemes. Namibia, on the other hand, has another 12,000 hectares for irrigation and plan to draw water and supply Cuvelai and central Namibia. The country also plans to draw small amounts for Cuvelai and central Namibia, which may open the door for major supply schemes. Mendelsohn, however, notes that all developments require massive public funding.
Should the plans to increase their use of Okavango water succeed, Botswana has the most to lose and here and this is why: Increase in water usage upstream will result in considerable volumes of water seemingly not coming to the Delta, according to Dr Mendelsohn. He also notes that variation in flows between high and low years may change and water qualities may change and that there will also be little attention to tourism, or conservation of biodiversity, wildlife or fish. Each new development, he noted, cumulatively lowers the value of the entire Okavango system and creates further precedent and opportunity.
The number one remedy to this, according to Mendelsohn, is if Botswana initiates talks with the two countries to device an alternative water supply option other than drawing water from the Cubango. “The ball is now in your court,” Mendelsohn said, gesturing to the numerous legislators who had attended the event including the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism (MENT) Tshekedi Khama. One viable option that Botswana could propose, he said, is suggesting and supporting groundwater desalination by the two countries. He said this will not only create a sustainable supply for decades or centuries to come but also has great symbolic value in demonstrating commitment to preserving Okavango flows. “Botswana’s support demonstrates co-operation around common goals and values,” said Dr Mendelsohn.
Will the blue eyed Botswana behave?
When taking to the floor after Mendelsohn’s presentation, Minister Khama did not mince words in stating Botswana’s commitment to preserving the delta. He, however, bluntly stated that committed as she maybe, Botswana has in the past not benefitted from regional cooperation with neighboring countries in bids to conserve and preserve natural resources . Khama cited the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, also known as KAZA which Botswana established with Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. “KAZA has not delivered,” Khama said. He went on to say maybe Botswana excelled in its conservation efforts because it is easier to manage animals than to manage people.
It remains to be seen on how long it will take both Namibia and Angola to implement their plans to increase their use of Okavango water and how fast Botswana will move to prevent the two from pumping water directly from the Okavango.
As Dr Mendelsohn put it; “Angola and Namibia do not share in anyway the benefits Botswana gets from tourism in the Okavango Delta”. Spreading the fame and value of the Delta upstream into the whole basin, according to Dr Mendelsohn, could remedy this situation. This, he said, can be achieved if Botswana shared experience and expertise to develop and manage tourism in Angola, support wildlife and park management in Angola’s developing protected areas and introduce game and help control poaching. Connecting the good in Angola’s catchment with the good in Botswana’s Delta and making the Okavango basin (not delta only) a destination is - according to Mendelsohn – an almost water tight solution.