Botswana is getting rough treatment from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as the France based organisation presses hard for information on the planned multi-billion oil drilling project and the ongoing construction of Mohembo Bridge around the Okavango Delta.
A UNESCO report titled: “Convention concerning the protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage”, suggests that Botswana is having a difficult time explaining what impact the two mega projects could have on the Okavango Delta – the country’s biggest tourism attraction and world heritage site.
UNESCO reminded Botswana that on March 2020, it had informed it that exploration activities close to the buffer zone by Canadian based company ReconAfrica are being monitored.
The report also reminded Botswana that letters of exchanges between the World Heritage Centre and the “States Parties of Botswana and Namibia in November 2020 clarified that oil exploration activities were approved in north-eastern Namibia and north-western Botswana within the Okavango River basin, but that the license excluded the Tsodilo World Heritage property (Botswana), and the EIA for the drilling of multiple stratigraphic test wells was shared.”
Indications are that there are no easy answers to the problems surrounding the two projects. Over the past months at least, they have become increasingly complex, generating a web of social, economic, political and environmental issues that seem to paralyse every attempt to find viable, sustainable solutions.
According to the report, “On 1 February 2021, the review of the EIA undertaken by the World Heritage Centre and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) was submitted to the State Party of Namibia. The World Heritage Centre received various petitions and letters from civil society, including Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, expressing concern over the project,” the report says.
UNESCO said it welcomed cooperation between the States Parties of Botswana, Angola and Namibia through OKACOM, supporting long-term protection of the property.
The Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM), is a river basin organisation established by the three riparian states of Angola, Botswana and Namibia to jointly manage water resources of the Cubango-Okavango River Basin.
“Any development in the Cubango-Okavango River Basin (CORB) leading to unsustainable water abstraction or pollution could impact the property’s Outstanding Universal Value (OUV).
The impact of the low rainfall in 2018/19 on water levels in the property demonstrates the importance of a basin-wide approach. The conduct of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) as requested by the Committee, with a basin-wide Environmental Monitoring Framework, is an important step to achieve this,” the report says.
UNESCO warned Botswana that it was concerned, “about the granting of oil exploration licenses in environmentally sensitive areas within the Okavango River basin in north-western Botswana and north-eastern Namibia that could result in potential negative impact on the property in case of spills or pollution.”
States the report, “The granting of oil exploration licenses in Botswana and Namibia is of significant concern. While the licensed areas do not overlap with the property or its buffer zone, they are situated in environmentally sensitive areas of CORB, with a potential negative impact on the property in case of spills or pollution.”
It says the areas are also important dispersal routes for elephants and other wildlife. While the current activities as described in the planning documents are not likely to have a significant direct impact on the property based on their restricted scope and location away from the property, this might be a first stage towards a larger project with significant risks to the interconnected water system of the delta and the OUV, in case reserves are found.
“Furthermore, IUCN and the World Heritage Centre identified some gaps and concerns with the EIA, such as the need for a more detailed spatial distribution assessment of species and to ascertain the connectivity of the ecosystems. Therefore, great caution should be applied in proceeding with any stage of this project,” the report says.
It adds that, “Any potential future activities, including further exploration stages such as seismic research and drilling of stratigraphic wells should be evaluated critically, and be subject to an EIA that corresponds with international standards, including an assessment of social impacts and a review of potential impacts on the World Heritage property in line with IUCN’s World Heritage Advice Note on Environmental Assessment.”
UNESCO called on Botswana and Namibia to ensure that potential further steps to develop the oil project, which include the use of new exploration techniques, are subject to rigorous and critical prior review, including through Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that corresponds to international standards, including an assessment of social impacts and a review of potential impacts on the World Heritage property.
Botswana was also called on to measures to ensure that all wastewater generating facilities in the property comply with national wastewater pollution standards and avoid any effluent disposal methods that could impact the OUV of the property, ensuring regular monitoring of water quality.
Botswana was also instructed to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2022, an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the above, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 45th session in 2021.
Turning to Mohembo Bridge, an audit of the Environmental Management Plan (EMP) of the cable-stayed bridge and associated approach road at Mohembo was conducted and observed numerous non-conformities.
The report states that, “The numerous non-conformities observed in the audit of the EMP for the Mohembo bridge project are of concern and it is recommended that the Committee request the State Party to complement the EIA with a specific assessment of the potential impacts of the project on the property’s OUV. Adequate measures are also required to ensure that all wastewater-generating facilities in the property comply with the legislation.”
UNESCO also reiterated its requests to Botswana to complement the EIA for the Mohembo bridge project with a specific assessment of the potential impacts of the construction and use of the bridge and the road on the property’s OUV, and submit it to the World Heritage Centre for review by IUCN.
According to UNESCO: “It is concerning that no progress was reported on the requested EIA for the veterinary cordon fences as they create a major impediment to wildlife migrations.”