Sold Up The River? Hydro Power Threat Re-Opens Debate

Experts agree that the Popa Falls Hydro Power Project on the Okavango River in Namibia will a catastrophic impact on Africa’s soon-to-be newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the world’s largest, wildest inland delta. Namibia is signatory to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971). This intergovernmental treaty provides for national action and international co-operation in support of the conservation and sustainable-use of wetlands around the world. The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest Ramsar site. Namibia is, therefore, obliged to manage the Okavango River in a manner that is not detrimental to this enigmatic and important wetland wilderness. Alarmingly, the stretch of the Okavango River most impacted by the proposed power station was initially proposed as a Ramsar site by Namibia’s Ministry of Environment & Tourism, but, despite meeting all criteria for Ramsar status, nomination was not approved by cabinet. Why not conserve these rare and threatened riverine and wetland habitats in one of the world’s driest countries?

Popa Falls is a series of rapids on the Okavango River that could produce 20-30MW of power, but will negatively impact the ecological and hydrological functioning of the Okavango Delta downstream. (Baobab Guides / baobabguides.com)

One of the world’s last-remaining true wilderness areas is rumoured again to be under direct threat from a proposed hydro-electric “run of the river” weir that will permanently alter the flood regime, hamper crucial sedimentation, inundate threatened habitat, displace local communities, and stimulate unnecessary biodiversity loss. Are we being sold up the river? How do we balance Namibia’s need for power and water with the preservation of Botswana’s Okavango Delta? Do we know enough to take control of the flood regime? Should Botswana consider swapping coal for water? How do we solve this problem?

Steve Boyes
A vast unending wilderness beyond comparison. This sensitive wetland ecosystem is already feeling the effects of global climate change and now faces rapid development in the catchment with nothing currently protected. (Steve Boyes)
The relationship between elephants and the landscape is profound and water guides their movements... The day all elephants cannot move freely is the day we lose hope for elephants. The Okavango Delta is one of the most important such landscapes. (Steve Boyes)
The relationship between elephants and the landscape is profound and water guides their movements… The day all elephants cannot move freely is the day we lose hope for elephants. The Okavango Delta is one of the most important such landscapes. (Steve Boyes)

Africa is finally growing, but at what cost?

In 2003, the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM) agreed that Namibia’s power company, NamPower, proceed with a feasibility study for a hydro-electric weir at Popa Falls on the Okavango River. This commission represents Angola, Botswana and Namibia and oversees all development in the Kavango Basin. Namibia’s intention to proceed re-opened the whole issue and highlights concern for our natural heritage on the African continent at a time when all protected areas and wildernesses are ring-fenced by development and degradation. More species are threatened and being traded than ever before.

How do we make it worth it for African governments to preserve vast, untouched landscapes as wilderness areas?

When challenged about news that a new one-month public participation period had been re-opened, Mr. John Langford at NamPower responded immediately that their website administrator has recently updated the Nampower website to clarify the confusion around the Popa Falls development, reassuring reporters that Nampower “shelved the project back in 2004 and has not revisited it since”. See recent Press Release on the NamPower website: http://www.nampower.com.na/pages/popa-about.asp 

The human experience in this wilderness is nothing short of exhilarating and life-giving, showing us our path to a better future. (Paul Steyn)
The human experience in this wilderness is nothing short of exhilarating and life-giving, showing us our path to a better future. (Paul Steyn)

Namibia is desperate to develop their own power generation capacity, noting that over 50% is imported from South Africa under mounting pressure from rising energy prices. Regional demand far exceeds current production capacity and widespread power outages are hampering economic growth. High voltage lines at Katima Mulilo are being upgraded to import more power from Zambia to bolster the national grid. The sad irony of the situation is that all of this power comes from Victoria Falls Power Station in Livingstone. Now, in dry years, the Zambian side of the mighty Victoria Falls all but dries up during winter. Most of the remaining water in the Zambezi River is diverted to the power station just above the falls. So we are harming one World Heritage Site to protect another?

We cannot risk losing the Okavango Delta in its current state, just the same as we cannot simply watch the “smoke that thunders” finally dry up… Where do we draw the line?

Namibia has been exploring the possibility of a hydro-electric power station along their section of the Okavango River since 1969, eventually publishing the preliminary environmental assessment for a 20-30 MW facility in 2003. Every time this hydro project is proposed and public meetings are held in Botswana and Namibia, most local stakeholders strongly oppose the development. Resultant public outcry usually puts the scheme on the back-burner. These rumours seems bizarre and ill-timed with the upcoming vote on World Heritage Listing for the Okavango Delta in Doha (Qatar) next month.

This young male Kalahari leopard is trying to find his way in the wilderness, but needs us to guarantee that his offspring will have a future. (Steve Boyes)
This young male Kalahari leopard is trying to find his way in the wilderness, but needs us to guarantee that his offspring will have a future. (Steve Boyes)

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) needs to help Namibia achieve long-term security for their power grid through stronger regional partnerships that reach into central Africa and beyond. Africa needs to work together this decade to save our amazing natural heritage for future generations of proud Africans. NamPower must further investigate hydro power near Epupa Falls on the Cunene River, wind power near Lüderitz, and gas power near Oranjemund. Any country would feel a bit exposed when most of their back-up generators run on diesel and are far more expensive than imported power. The mighty Colorado, Indus, Rio Grande, Yellow and Murray Rivers have already succumbed and we are finding it very hard to bring them back. This is one of our last opportunities to save one last pristine river basin as an example to the world. The shared benefit and cooperation necessary between Angola, Namibia and Botswana to sustainably develop the Kavango Basin and effectively protect sensitive ecosystems like the Okavango Delta will be an example to the world. The preservation of the Okavango wilderness will be our greatest work to date and hope for the future…

Kirsten Wimberger
African jacana eggs in a remote floodplain of he Okavango Delta. Over 72 wetland bird species depend on the complex flood regime of the delta for their nesting effort. Regional bird populations will collapse the Okavango’s ecosystems are degraded. (Kirsten Wimberger)
 “Water for money”?!

Many of the wildlife management areas in the Okavango Delta are up for tender in the coming years and lucrative wildlife tourism properties are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars of business, partnerships and investment. The Okavango Delta has become an international tourism destination that attracts more high-paying guests than any other landscape in the region. Angola and Namibia, on the other hand, currently derive very little benefit from their stretches of the river and catchment. We need to motivate and develop high-price-low-intensity tourism in a tripartite effort to conserve the entire Kavango Basin. Water intensive economic activities like rice production, mining, forestry and pump schemes need to be kept to a minimum. The establishment of new protected areas in the Angolan catchment, a “univisa” to facilitate easy access to the whole basin via one office, and massive investment in ecotourism development will establish a world-class tourism industry that spans an area the size of Texas.

An uncertain future... Spotted hyena were once abundant and benefited from the boom in sport hunting and "safari" two hundred years ago. Today we have few left due to poaching and associated poisoning. This mom needs to be protective... (Steve Boyes)
An uncertain future… Spotted hyena were once abundant and benefited from the boom in sport hunting and “safari” two hundred years ago. Today we have few left due to poaching and associated poisoning. This mom needs to be protective… (Steve Boyes)

A “water for money“ agreement between Botswana, Namibia and Angola needs to be considered. Botswana’s tourism industry and government must commit to investing in ecotourism developments and partnerships that open up the remotest parts of the Angolan catchment and preserve sensitive wetlands and islands in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. It is only through sharing resources that we will save the Okavango Delta and the vast undeveloped river catchment that it depends upon. Botswana will lose the Okavango Delta if the government does not lead the evaluation process at Okacom and get directly involved in the development process in the Kavango Basin. It is time to protect our natural heritage and a valuable national asset.

Risks are too many and the benefits too few…

Dr Piotr Wolski (University of Cape Town, South Africa) and his colleagues recently published a peer-reviewed manuscript entitled: “Human-induced climate change reduces chance of flooding in Okavango Delta”. This paper highlights the impact of increasing evaporation in the Kavango Basin due to global warming. Proposed Chinese rice developments in the Cuito subcatchment, irrigation schemes in Angola and Namibia, and increased evaporation from the river over the more than 1,500 kilometres to the Okavango Delta, together threaten the functioning of this sensitive wetland ecosystem.

This tiny three-banded plower hatchling as good-to-go from day one and spent this morning dodging elephant feet in a riverbed... (Steve Boyes)
This tiny three-banded plower hatchling as good-to-go from day one and spent this morning dodging elephant feet in a riverbed… (Steve Boyes)

The impact of upstream dams for power generation could potentially reduce evaporation losses, thus increasing water availability during drought periods. Capturing millions of tons of sediment coupled with the erosion of downstream channels are, however, unacceptable impacts of a hydro-electric weir across the Okavango River. There is no way we can simulate the natural action of sedimentation, seismic activity, hippos, elephant, termites, papyrus and people after we start managing the seasonal flow rates into the delta and remove most of the sand and sediment. One thing is clear. We need to limit water abstraction to household demand throughout the Kavango Basin. All negative impacts require costly, sometimes non-existant, mitigation measures that are simply not worth considering, researching or developing when costed against the low power output of the proposed scheme.

This small hydro-electric weir will flood the well-known islands of the Mukwe-Divundu area, which are home to at least 5 threatened plant species, including several ground orchids. Namibia’s only species of Protea may still exist there, but has not been seen since 1986. The area of inundation is rich in mammals, reptiles and amphibians with 38 species of frogs, 75 reptiles and 124 mammals known or expected. Of these 10 species of frogs, 8 reptiles and 18 mammals are dependent on threatened wetland habitats, resulting in over 90% of these species being considered of national conservation concern.

Lions are in trouble throughout Africa. The Okavango Delta is one of three locations on the continent with more than 2,000 lions. Kruger National Park and the Serengeti are the others. Africa's "king of the jungle" is only safe inside protected areas and need all the help we can give them. (Steve Boyes)
Lions are in trouble throughout Africa. The Okavango Delta is one of three locations on the continent with more than 2,000 lions. Kruger National Park and the Serengeti are the others. Africa’s “king of the jungle” is only safe inside protected areas and need all the help we can give them. (Steve Boyes)

Here are some of the most likely social, environmental and biodiversity impacts of putting a “run of the river” scheme across the Popa Falls as listed in the preliminary environmental assessment:

  • Inundation of unique islands and riverine forest and scarce rocky habitats will result in loss of biodiversity and unnecessary pressure on endangered and endemic species.
  • Inundation of houses, businesses, farms, archaeological sites, graves, schools and basic infrastructure will destabilise communities and uproot families.
  • Significant reductions in water flow, loss of natural variability, and potential flooding of surrounding areas during high rainfall periods will support biodiversity loss and further impact on rural livelihoods.
  • Interruption in the free flow of sediment downstream, scouring of riverbed below weir, and erosion of adjacent habitat will significantly impact downstream ecology and geomorphology in the panhandle and Okavango Delta.
  • Elephant migrational routes will be disturbed and fish spawning up the river will be halted.
  • Local communities will lose livelihoods like fishing and reed-collecting, while the influx of migrant workers, entrepreneurs and service providers will undermine social stability.
  • HIV/Aids and TB are already huge problems. Inundation could boost prevalence of malaria and bilharzia.

This illustrates just how sensitive the Okavango River is. The potential social and environmental impacts of a small weir at Popa Falls are considered too severe for the development to move forward, but somewhere upstream vested interests may make a different decision, following a mandate of economic development at any cost.

Steve Boyes
Long reed frog found clasping to a reed as we passed by on the mokoro. The Okavango is populated by millions of reed frogs able to consume up to 500 mosquitoes a night. That billions of mosquitoes turned into bird and fish food. Amphibians are the first to go and when they do it is a sign that the ecosystem is collapsing… (Steve Boyes)

Do it for the elephants…

The message is clear. Do not develop the waterways and landscapes of the Kavango Basin or pump too much water from its river. This will devastate the world’s largest Ramsar site and Africa’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Okavango Delta. The Kavango-Zambezi-Kwando watersheds in eastern Angola, western Zambia, the Caprivi Strip, and northern Botswana remain Africa’s most valuable terrestrial wilderness and the “elephant factory of Africa” keystone to their persistence on the continent. There are more than 150.000 elephant roaming free in this vast landscape, migrating great distances during the summer rainy season, returning to permanent or seasonal waterways like the Okavango and Chobe during winter. This accounts for almost 50% of the projected global population at the end of this year.

Steve Boyes
Migrating elephants spread across the fertile floodplains of Mombo where some of the world’s most pristine wilderness remains… (Steve Boyes)

After David Livingstone and Charles Andersen sparked interest in the region in the 1840s and 50s it took European hunters and traders just over 60 years to annihilate local elephant populations, exporting hundreds of thousands of tusks to Europe, the Americas and emerging markets. Continued pressure up to the 1970s and 80s from professional hunters, as well as the ongoing border or civil wars, kept populations under immense pressure. The remaining elephants could still migrate freely in this grand landscape, allowing elephant populations to bounce back twice over a short period because of the productivity of this ancient landscape, Africa’s elephant kingdom.

Steve Boyes
The skies light up at sunrise on a cold Okavango winter morning when a distant front is rolling over high in the sky. The power of this place and the effect on us is hard to describe. (Steve Boyes)
The Okavango Wilderness Project aims to get this entire region listed as a multi-national UNESCO World Heritage Site for this reason. There are currently no protected areas in the Angolan catchments and development is approaching far faster than expected due surging oil revenues and Chinese investment. Protecting the “elephant factory of Africa” begins with guaranteeing that developments like the Popa Falls Hydro Power Project have a net positive impact upon closure. The nature of the Okavango Delta makes this near impossible. Guaranteed impacts and unproven mitigation measures make the Popa Falls Hydro Power Project beyond justification right now.
Have your say and contribute to an important debate on the development of the Kavango Basin. How should Botswana, Namibia and Angola share benefit from the water’s of the Okavango River?!

Wildlife

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Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.