An Oasis in the Desert: Navigating Peace in the Okavango River Basin

From the the Spring 2004 issue of PECS News

May 14, 2004

By Anton Earle and Ariel Méndez

One of the last unindustrialized rivers in the world, the Okavango River drops from its headwaters in Angola down to the wide, flat delta in Botswana, crossing Namibia's Caprivi Strip on its 1,100 km journey south to the Kalahari Desert (Nicol, 2003). This pristine environment is home to myriad species of animals and plants that have escaped the impact of modern industrial and municipal human development.

Yet the three basin states—Angola, Namibia, and Botswana—face pressing developmental needs that place demands on the fragile river environment, and, even more devastatingly, could raise the specter of conflict among these water users. As Angola emerges from over twenty-five years of civil war, the river could be the wellspring of new development in its battle-scarred southern region. But first, these three states must agree on how to balance their water needs. Not only could these negotiations prevent conflict, but the ongoing dialogue may also promote peace and regional integration in Southern Africa.

Instead of flowing into the sea, the Okavango discharges its fresh water into the Kalahari desert, fanning out over 15,800 km2 during the flood season to form the largest inland delta in sub-Saharan Africa. A maze of swamps and grasslands, the delta nurtures hundreds of varieties of birds, fish, and mammals, including zebras, lions, elephants, hippos, and giraffes. The Okavango basin itself covers an area of some 413,550 km2 across the three countries (Ashton & Neal, 2003). An estimated five hundred thousand people make their homes in the basin, and another few hundred thousand people displaced by Angola's civil war could potentially return to the headwaters region over the next decade.

In most of the basin, residents earn a living from small-scale farming, fishing, hunting, producing charcoal, and harvesting fruit, reeds, and timber; however, these activities are banned in areas that have been declared nature conservancies. Poverty and unemployment are rife, and are accompanied by other social ills such as alcohol abuse, illiteracy, and, most significantly, HIV/AIDS. Due to villages' isolation, lack of institutional capacity, and underlying poverty, services are inadequate or infrequent.

Delta Blues
As Angolan refugees return to the water-rich region formerly dominated by UNITA rebels, the country's priorities are "people, land mines, and then environment," according to Isidro Pinheiro, Angola's OKACOM commissioner. The civil war devastated Angola's communities, which suffer from starvation, lack basic infrastructure, and are infested with land mines and unexploded ordnance. However, water is relatively abundant in Angola, and using those resources could help it build a sustainable economy. Although the Angolan government views tourism as a way to improve its citizens' standard of living, attracting visitors to its portion of the basin will not be easy, as the war destroyed its transportation system, bushmeat hunting decimated indigenous animal life, and unexploded ordnance make the region nearly impenetrable. The Angolans need to generate livelihoods, clear land mines, and increase institutional capacity to make the region more hospitable for their citizens.

As the only exploitable perennial river running through the nations of Namibia and Botswana, the Okavango is under demand by both countries (Turton, Ashton, & Cloete, 2003). Namibia, one of the most arid countries in Southern Africa, sees the river as a source for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses, and national leaders are considering building a 250 km pipeline to bring a small portion of the river's flow to the capital city of Windhoek to increase its supplies of freshwater. According to Namibia's Ministry of Agriculture, 250,000 people outside the Kavango region will need future access to water from the Okavango to sustain their socioeconomic activities (Pinheiro, Gabaake, & Heyns, 2003). Not that Namibians in the Kavango region enjoy socioeconomic stability: over 70 percent are unemployed, and three quarters of the region's households spend over 60 percent of their income on food.

Botswana's leaders want to preserve the delta's status quo to increase tourism; in 1996, Botswana unilaterally registered the delta as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance without consulting its upstream neighbors. Botswana's conservation efforts have limited inhabitants' traditional hunting, farming, and fishing rights, so now many rely on income from providing services to tourists who visit the upscale lodges located in the delta. Although Botswana earns significant revenue from these lodges, local communities have not received a concomitant increase in living standards; many villages lack basic health care and educational opportunities.

Navigating Peace in the Okavango
Despite pursuing mixed and sometimes contradictory objectives, the Okavango River Basin users have not resorted to violence to control this valuable resource; instead, the three states have made a concerted effort to manage their competing demands. In 1994, the governments of Botswana, Angola, and Namibia agreed to form the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission, known as OKACOM, to manage the river basin. Due to vast distances and lack of transportation in the region, OKACOM can only officially meet once a year; some representatives must travel for three days to attend.

In October 2003, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Environmental Change and Security Project (ECSP), Green Cross International, and the African Water Issues Research Unit convened a meeting in the Okavango Delta to discuss OKACOM's progress and identify the major challenges facing cooperation in the basin. Representatives from each member state, regional researchers, local stakeholders, and tourism operators met with members of ECSP's Navigating Peace Water Working Group on the Future of Water Conflict and Cooperation. This small group is comprised of international experts on water and conflict resolution.

Sharing Water, Sharing Benefits

The conference had three objectives:

  • Strengthen the stakeholders' unity of purpose regarding sustainable development;
  • Shift the focus away from sharing water and towards sharing water's benefits; and
  • Understand the gaps and overlaps in terms of current and planned development initiatives in the basin.

    Although this meeting was small in size, stakeholders from all major groups participated—national and local government leaders, NGOs, research organizations, community leaders, and the tourism industry. The interaction allowed delegates to share ideas and gain an understanding of each other's challenges. For example, national government representatives explained their need to balance international treaty obligations with infrastructure improvements, while community leaders conveyed the challenges of forging a sustainable livelihood. Local communities in Botswana that depend upon the delta for their livelihoods often violate the provisions of international conservation treaties and agreements that ban traditional farming, harvesting, and other activities. Inhabitants are frequently unaware of the treaties, so they are caught between the desires of the government to promote development for their citizens and to adhere to treaties supported by powerful international NGOs. A Motswana attending the meeting described the situation with a local saying: "When two elephants are fighting, it is the grass that suffers."

    At the meeting, government representatives confirmed their desire to institutionalize community participation in the OKACOM process. This state and civil society cooperation represents a major shift away from the top-down approach prevalent during much of the region's history and in other river basins. OKACOM receives critical input from the community through the Okavango River Basin-wide Forum, which was established in 2002 as a parallel institution to OKACOM to give residents of riverside villages a voice in managing the river basin. However, the difficulty of convening the commissioners and the forum is a significant barrier to reaching a shared vision of environmentally sustainable development. The group proposed that OKACOM form a secretariat that will produce and translate reports to further the institution's development, and also discussed the feasibility of collecting revenue from tourism to help fund it. In addition, government officials affirmed their willingness and interest in collaborating with district and village councils on a range of small-scale projects.

    This new level of trust and understanding allows the water users in the basin to move away from a model of strict water rights to one of basin-wide "benefit-sharing." The group discussed creating a trans-frontier wildlife park for tourists, along with other methods of sharing tourist-related revenue. Tourists would move freely among the three basin states within the park's confines, thus experiencing a variety of habitats and spreading revenues around the region. The park would bring more than just money: increasing the amount of protected territory might decrease the pressures on the animal population in Botswana. In addition, Angola's newly formed Ministry of Environmental Affairs has proposed that former combatants be hired as game wardens. Benefit-sharing would allow Angola to exchange its water rights for help with its pressing issues like relocating displaced people and removing land mines and unexploded ordnance. For example, Botswana could assist Angola's reconstruction in return for an assured flow quantity on the Okavango.

    Despite the complex web of their divergent goals and relationships, the participants demonstrated that conflict is not an inevitable byproduct of sharing resources, and that by collaborating to manage the basin, they can improve the livelihoods of their citizens and contribute to the development of peace in post-war Angola. The members of ECSP's working group are incorporating the lessons from their experience in the Okavango River Basin into their ongoing efforts to identify policy alternatives for successful river basin management. These policy observations on the future of water conflict and cooperation, to be published in late 2004, will target both donors and basin stakeholders.

    Click here for the entire Spring 2004 issue of PECS.

    Anton Earle is the deputy head of the African Water Issues Research Unit. Ariel Méndez is a project assistant with the Environmental Change and Security Project.

    References

    Ashton, Peter & Marian Neal. (2003). "An overview of key strategic issues in the Okavango basin." In Anthony Turton, Peter Ashton, & Eugene Cloete (Eds.), Transboundary rivers, sovereignty and development: Hydropolitical drivers in the Okavango River basin (pages 31-63). Pretoria, South Africa: African Water Issues Research Unit & Green Cross International.

    Jansen, Ruud & Masego Madzwamuse. (2003). "The Okavango Delta Management Plan project: The need for environmental partnerships." In Anthony Turton, Peter Ashton, & Eugene Cloete (Eds.), Transboundary rivers, sovereignty and development: Hydropolitical drivers in the Okavango River basin (pages 141-166). Pretoria, South Africa: African Water Issues Research Unit & Green Cross International.

    Mendelsohn, John M. & S. el Obeid. (in press). Okavango River: The flow of a lifeline. Cape Town, South Africa: Struik.

    Nicol, Alan. (2003). "The dynamics of river basin cooperation: The Nile and Okavango basins." In Anthony Turton, Peter Ashton, & Eugene Cloete (Eds.), Transboundary rivers, sovereignty and development: Hydropolitical drivers in the Okavango River basin (pages 167-186). Pretoria, South Africa: African Water Issues Research Unit & Green Cross International.

    Pinheiro, Isidro, Gabaake Gabaake, & Piet Heyns. (2003). "Cooperation in the Okavango River basin: The OKACOM perspective." In Anthony Turton, Peter Ashton, & Eugene Cloete (Eds.), Transboundary rivers, sovereignty and development: Hydropolitical drivers in the Okavango River basin (pages 105-118). Pretoria, South Africa: African Water Issues Research Unit & Green Cross International.

    Turton, Anthony R., Peter Ashton, & Eugene Cloete. (2003). "An introduction to the hydropolitical drivers in the Okavango River basin." In Anthony Turton, Peter Ashton, & Eugene Cloete (Eds.), Transboundary rivers, sovereignty and development: Hydropolitical drivers in the Okavango River basin (pages 9-30). Pretoria, South Africa: African Water Issues Research Unit & Green Cross International.

    United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). (2003). Human development report 2003: Millennium development goals. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved on February 3, 2004 from http://www.undp.org/hdr2003/indicator/pdf/hdr03_table_7.pdf.

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