The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Unity Dow mentioned the words “tension” twice and “problem” once as she struggled to allay fears of a looming water war with Angola over the Okavango Delta.
The issue which has provided fodder for “water wars” theories, debates and predictions by a number of international organizations’ among them the World Bank, Worldwatch, UNESCO and the Global Policy Forum has now escalated into a bone of contention between Botswana and Angola.
Leader of Opposition and Member of Parliament for Maun West
Dumelang Saleshando captured the tension between Gaborone and Luanda when he told Parliament that, “the issue of Angola, I have never understood this. You can sense the unease when you have gotten to issues like protecting the Okavango Delta, which for us, is very critical for Ngamiland.” Saleshando said there were clear challenges indicating Angola is not comfortable and playing open book with Botswana. “Let us not be delusional. There is need to try and normalise the situation.”
Minister Dow explained to Parliament that while Botswana does not want Angola to take any action that may affect the flow of water into the country, “they also have their needs and requirements…..There is always going to be tension with us trying to convince them not to dam the water because we want it down and we need it for the delta. So, there is always going to be communication. That is one of the reasons why His Excellency (President Mokgweetsi Masisi) actually sent an envoy there to talk with his counterpart about some of these issues.”
There has been growing pressure from Angola and Namibia to use the Okavango waters for irrigation, diversion, and hydroelectric power production, which would put the integrity of the Delta under serious threat.
The Okavango Delta is the mainstay of Botswana’s tourism industry which accounted for more than USD 2.8 billion (P31.6 billion) in 2018 representing 13,4% of all economic impact in Botswana or one in every seven dollars in the country’s economy, according to the World Travel & tourism Council (WTTC) report. The industry supports 84 000 jobs and 8.9% of Botswana’s total employment. The industry is driven by leisure travelers and tourists who account for 96% of the spending while business travelers account for the balance of 4%. Most of these are international leisure travelers, 73% who visit the delta, while domestic travelers account for only 27%.
Former World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin, BBC Development Editor Russel Smith and head of environmental research institute Worldwatch, Lester Brown, who are among a legion of experts who trumpeted the coming “Water Wars” cited The Okavango Delta as a possible conflict area between Botswana, Angola and Namibia.
Minister Dow further told parliament that, “I am not saying that there is a problem with Angola; I am saying we can expect that. If you look again at that area, on our side we have a park, on the side of Namibia, it is a village. Obviously, there are different rules and regulations that actually apply on the ground. Sometimes there are tensions because you are saying your people are coming into our park, but they are coming from a village, so we need to talk and find out how we manage and massage these tensions so that they do not blow out.”
She however told Parliament that there were
mutually beneficial bilateral relations between Botswana and Angola.
Steve Boyes, a conservationist and National Geographic explorer who has dedicated his life to preserving Africa’s wildlife and its habitat has been fighting to preserve the natural flow of the Delta. Boyes has led teams on various expeditions along the Okavango and Cuito Rivers educating the world about the importance of the Delta.
The 10,000-square-mile wetland basin sprawls across the borders of Botswana, Namibia and Angola and is home to the largest remaining population of elephants. It was partly through Boyes’ research and advocacy that UNESCO declared the Okavango Delta a World Heritage Site, consequently protecting the delta from possible agricultural and any other activities that may interfere with the natural habitat.
The delta however, Boyes has said, remains at risk for as long as the rivers that feed into it are not protected.
The Cuito River, one of the channels that feed into the Delta has faced threats of proposed dams and agricultural activities from Angola.
It remains in the best interest of Botswana that the Angolans recognize the value of tourism as a crucial component of economic diversification, therefore abandoning any plans that threaten the very existence of the Delta.
Minister Dow told parliament that improved conservation efforts from the Angolans could also assist Botswana to overcome the issue of overpopulation of Elephants, which has now led to Botswana lifting a long-standing ban on trophy hunting.
“There are 500 000 elephants in Africa, 250 000 are in that KAZA area (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola) and 130 000 are in Botswana itself. We would like the elephants to go north because we believe there is more space in Angola. On the other hand, Angola may not be ready yet to actually receive the elephants because of issues of mining of the area or other issues. There is always some kind of tension. It is normal. The good thing is that we provide bridges to negotiate,” Dow told parliament recently.
She said the situation with Angola was not unique as Botswana has various agreements with her neighbours about taking water from them.