Namibia's water shortage threatens African oasis
February 5, 1997
Web posted at: 9:15 p.m. EST (0215 GMT)
From Correspondent Mike Hanna
OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana (CNN) -- Gentle rain dimples the tranquil face of the Okavango Delta, a vast expanse of African swamp that is one of the world's most unique ecosystems.
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Seeking sanctuary in a wild wonderland is a range of species too great for the mind or eye to comprehend. Under every leaf hides a new discovery of another strand in nature's infinite web.
The lush spot is part of the world's largest oasis, a Garden of Eden that has sprung up in the arid sands of the Kalahari Desert. But hundreds of miles away, others searching for water threaten to turn all of it into dust.
In neighboring Namibia, the capital Windhoek has struggled through a decade of drought, and the government says the city and country are on the brink of humanitarian crisis.
The dams that provide the water for central Namibia are less than 15 percent full, and officials suggests that unless heavy rains come within weeks, the country will no choice but to take water from Okavango River.
"The urgency is because we've experienced nearly a decade now, 10 years, of below average rainfall," said Secretary of Water Affairs Richard Fry.
"Consequently, both our groundwater resources and particularly the three dams supplying the central area and specifically Windhoek are completely dry."
The country plans to draw water from the Okavango by diverting it through hundreds of miles of pipeline and an existing open canal to central Namibia. The process would place at risk the free flow of water to the Delta.
But in Botswana, where once perennial rivers are now dry, the fear is that a project initiated on an emergency basis could become a permanent threat to the Okavango Delta.
"Hasty decisions shouldn't be made on the Delta," said Dr. Karen Ross of Conservation International.
"The Delta is a very precious ecosystem and a delicate one, and once you set up big development plans like this that are costing billions, you can't just turn the taps off again."
In the African subcontinent water is always a point of contention.
Namibia, Botswana and Angola formed a commission to decide how all can benefit from available resources. They had agreed to a 10-year environmental impact assessment for drawing water off the Okavango River, but Namibia's claim of an emergency has effectively reduced the assessment period to a matter of months.
Fry promises any water siphoning would involve a "relatively small amount of water" and be of limited length and impact.
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But Randall Moore, one of dozens of tour operators in the Delta, said his livelihood depends on the ready supply of water. His company offers game viewing from the backs of elephants, and helps attract millions of dollars into the Botswanan economy.
"Obviously the one charm to the Delta is the water," Moore said. "If the water does not come, you know, it would just destroy the environment here. Then we would have to pick up and move elsewhere."
Tourists come and go, but the indigenous people of the Delta
are here to stay.
"The water is good for us," said one boatman. "Because we can see the money if the water is here because the tourists, they come here. If there is no water -- no tourists here."
But in Namibia, too, it is ultimately the indigenous people who are most threatened. And though a blaze of wild flowers signals that the rains have begun, the drought -- and its threat to the Okavango Delta -- continue.
Namibia is doing its best to conserve, using an efficient water purification system and even pumping water out of disused mines. In Windhoek, water consumption levels have remained the same over the past seven years, despite a 20 percent increase in the city's population.
And so the Delta, as dependent on people as they are on it, awaits its fate.
"One of its beauties is the way the people around here live in harmony with it, use it, respect it, look after it," Ross said.
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Over the verdant enchantment hangs the ever-present threat of the Kalahari Desert beyond.
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