Gobonamang Kgetho has a deep affection for Africa’s largest inland delta, the Okavango. It is his home.
The water and wildlife-rich land is fed by rivers in the Angolan highlands that flow into northern Botswana before draining into Namibia’s Kalahari Desert sands. Several Indigenous and local communities and a vast array of species including African elephants, black rhinos and cheetahs live among the vibrant marshlands. Much of the surrounding region is also teeming with wildlife.
Fisher Kgetho hails from Botswana’s Wayei community and relies on his pole and dug-out canoe to skirt around the marshes looking for fish. But things have changed in recent years — in the delta and across the country.
“The fish sizes have shrunk, and stocks are declining,” Kgetho, whose life and livelihood depends on the health of the ecosystem, told The Associated Press. “The rivers draining into the delta have less volumes of water.”
Drilling for oil exploration, as well as human-caused climate change leading to more erratic rainfall patterns and water abstraction and diversion for development and commercial agriculture, has altered the landscape that Kgetho, and so many other people and wildlife species, rely on.
The delta’s defenders are now hoping to block at least one of those threats — oil exploration.
A planned hearing by Namibia’s environment ministry will consider revoking the drilling license of Canadian oil and gas firm Reconnaissance Energy. Local communities and environmental groups claimed that land was bulldozed and cut through, damaging lands and polluting water sources, without the permission of local communities.
Kgetho worries that rivers in his region are drying up because of “overuse by the extractive industries, including oil exploration activities upstream.”
In a written statement, ReconAfrica, the firm’s African arm, said it safeguards water resources through “regular monitoring and reporting on hydrological data to the appropriate local, regional and national water authorities” and is “applying rigorous safety and environmental protection standards.”
The statement went on to say that it has held over 700 community consultations in Namibia and will continue to engage with communities in the country and in Botswana.
The company has been drilling in the area since 2021, but is yet to find a productive well. The hearing was originally scheduled for Monday but has been postponed until further notice. The drilling license is currently set to last until 2025, with ReconAfrica previously having been granted a three-year extension.
Locals have persisted with legal avenues but have had little luck. In a separate case, Namibia’s high court postponed a decision on whether local communities should pay up for filing a case opposing the company’s actions.
The court previously threw out the urgent appeal made by local people to stop the Canadian firm’s drilling activities. It’s now deciding whether the government’s legal fees should be covered by the plaintiffs or waived. A new date for the decision is set for May.
The Namibian energy minister, Tom Alweendo, has maintained the country’s right to explore for oil, saying that European countries and the U.S. do it too. Alweendo supports the African Union’s goal of using both renewable and non-renewable energy to meet growing demand.
There are similar fears of deterioration across Botswana and the wider region. Much of the country’s diverse ecosystem has been under threat from various development plans. Nearby Chobe National Park, for example, has seen a decline in river quality partly due to its burgeoning tourism industry, a study found.
In the Cuvette-Centrale basin in Congo, a dense and ecologically thriving forest that’s home to the largest population of lowland gorillas, sections of the peatlands — the continent’s largest — went up for oil and gas auction last year.
The Congolese government said the auctioning process “is in line” with development plans and government programs and it will stick to stringent international standards.
Environmentalists are not convinced.
Wes Sechrest, chief scientist of environmental organization Rewild, said that protecting areas “that have robust and healthy wildlife populations” like the Okavango Delta, “are a big part of the solution to the interconnected climate and biodiversity crises we’re facing.”
The peatlands also serve as a carbon sink, storing large amounts of the gas that would otherwise heat up the atmosphere.
Sechrest added that “local communities are going to bear the heaviest costs of oil exploration” and “deserve to be properly consulted about any extractive industry projects, including the many likely environmental damages, and decide if those projects are acceptable to them.”
Steve Boyes, who led the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project that mapped the delta, said researchers now have even more data to support the need to maintain the wetlands.
Aided by Kgetho and other locals, whose “traditional wisdom and knowledge” led them through the bogs, Boyes and a team of 57 other scientists were able to detail around 1,600 square kilometers (1,000 square miles) of peatlands.
“These large-scale systems that have the ability to sequester tons of carbon are our long-term resilience plan,” said Boyes.
For Kgetho, whose journey with the scientists was made into a documentary released earlier this year, there are more immediate reasons to defend the Okavango.
“We must protect the delta,” Kgetho said. “It is our livelihood.”
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