Ramsar COP7 DOC. 20.5

24/11/1999

[English only]


COP7's logo"People and Wetlands: The Vital Link"
7th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties
to the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971),
San José, Costa Rica, 10-18 May 1999

 Ramsar COP7 DOC. 20.5

Technical Session V:
The framework for regional and international cooperation regarding wetlands
Paper 5

A Framework for international cooperation for the management of the Okavango Basin and Delta

by Stevie C. Monna, Botswana National Conservation Strategy (Coordinating) Agency, 2nd Floor Travaglini House, Old Lobatse Road, P/Bag 0068, Gaborone, Botswana

Abstract

International cooperation for the managment of the Okavango Basin and Delta

The Okavango Delta is one of the largest and most important inland wetlands in the world, covering over 15 000 km2. Water supplying the Okavango River originates in the highlands of Angola and after passing briefly through the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, enters Ngamiland in the northwestern corner of Botswana. The river then flows in a well-defined channel for approximately 95 km, before fanning out into a delta of interconnected rivers and reed-lined channels. Water flows out of the delta in the Boteti River and, in years of high rainfall, has supplied Lake Xau. Within the Okavango Delta, five broad ecological zones have been defined – perennial swamps, seasonal swamps, seasonal grasslands, intermittently flooded land, and dry land. Approximately 140 000 people reside in Ngamiland and the northwestern portion of the Boteti Sub Districts, with 50 percent of the population in villages of less than 500 people. The economy of the region is quite diverse and includes floodplain and dryland agriculture, cattle rearing, wage labour and craft and tourist related enterprises.

Biodiversity significance

Wetland ecosystems are among the most biologically productive in the world, but are disappearing globally at an alarming rate. The Okavango Delta is particularly significant as one of the largest remaining inland wetland ecosystems in the world today. While it is not known how many rare or threatened species of flora and fauna exist in the Delta, the wetland ecosystem as a whole is a critically endangered environment of international significance. The Okavango is the habitat for between 2000 to 3000 species of plants, more than 65 fish species, over 162 arachnid (spiders, scorpion, ticks and mites) species, more than 20 species of large herbivores, and over 450 species of birds, including the endangered Wattle Crane.

While it is understood that the perpetual change of the Delta’s composition is necessary for the maintenance of the biodiversity of the wetland, the critical function of the flora and the fauna in this process is only beginning to be studied. It is thought that the reeds and grasses of the Delta play a critical role in the dynamics of the water flow and the salinity of the Okavango River. This variability and salinity control maintain a wetland environment in which both human and animal populations can thrive. Although much more research is needed on the Delta’s resources, it is well known that numerous plants from the area are used extensively by local people for purposes ranging from construction to medicinal uses.

Pressures facing biodiversity

The biodiversity of the Okavango Delta is threatened primarily in two ways: by the use of the Delta water resources for development purposes and by the lack of a comprehensive natural resources management plan which accommodates local participation and sustainable resource use. Additionally, tourism offers an incentive for conservation and a threat to sustainability, if unmanaged.

Regional threats

The main threats to the Okavango River Basin (ORB) arise from patterns of unsustainable development. If these threats are allowed to persist, they will result in fundamental and irreversible changes in the basin’s water balance, energy balance, and hydrochemical and hydrogeomorphological responses, all of which will impact on the productivity of the basin as a whole.

Key factors in the trends are; overgrazing which is already resulting in accelerated land and soil degradation in Namibia and Botswana; unplanned developments in Angola along the de-mined transport routes/corridors in the Cubango and Cuito sub-basins as post-civil-war resettlement occurs; and pressure for new and increased abstraction of raw water to service urban expansion and irrigated agriculture.

The foregoing trends are outpacing policy and institutional responses in the riparian countries. The primacy of national interests is resulting in the imposition of transboundary externalities on specific sectoral and cross-sectoral developments. These include the quality and quantity losses of water supplies for the cross sectoral activities which include inter alia, loss of biodiversity and compromised nature tourism. It is these intermediate causes related to policy and institutional failures where intervention is necessary.

Formulation of a management plan for the Okavango Delta

In view of the foregoing, the Botswana Government is collaborating with the Ramsar Bureau to formulate an integrated management plan for the Okavango Delta, the world's largest Ramsar and World Heritage site.


Background

The Okavango Delta is one of the largest and most important inland wetlands in the world, covering over 15 000 km2. Water supplying the Okavango River originates in the highlands of Angola and after passing briefly through Namibia, enters Botswana in Ngamiland, in the northwestern corner of Botswana. The river then flows in a well defined channel for approximately 95 km, before fanning out into a Delta of interconnected rivers and reed-lined channels. Water flows out of the delta in the Boteti River and, in years of high rainfall, has supplied Lake Xau. Within the Okavango Delta, five broad ecological zones have been defined – perennial swamps, seasonal swamps, seasonal grasslands, intermittently flooded land, and dry land.

Approximately 140 000 people reside in Ngamiland and the northwestern portion of the Boteti – Sub Districts, with 50 percent of the population in villages of less than 500 people. The economy of the region is quite diverse and includes floodplain and dryland agriculture, cattle rearing, wage labour and craft and tourist related enterprises.

Biodiversity significance

Wetland ecosystems are among the most biologically productive in the world, but are disappearing globally at an alarming rate. The Okavango Delta is particularly significant as one of the largest remaining inland wetland ecosystems in the world. While it is not known how many rare or threatened species of flora and fauna exist in the Delta, the wetland ecosystem as a whole is a critically endangered environment of international significance. The Okavango is the habitat for between 2000 to 3000 species of plants, more than 65 fish species, over 162 arachnid (spiders, scorpion, ticks and mites) species, more than 20 species of large herbivores, and over 450 species of birds, including the endangered Wattle Crane.

While it is understood that the perpetual change of the Delta’s composition is necessary for the maintenance of the biodiversity of the wetland, the critical function of the flora and the fauna in this process is only beginning to be studied. It is thought that the reeds and grasses of the Delta play a critical role in the dynamics of the water flow and the salinity of the Okavango River. This variability and salinity control maintain a wetland environment in which both human and animal populations can thrive. Although much more research is needed on the Delta’s resources, it is well known that numerous plants from the area are used extensively by local people for purposes ranging from construction to medicine.

Pressures facing biodiversity

The Biodiversity of the Okavango Delta is threatened primarily in two ways: by the use of the Delta water resources for development purposes and by the lack of a comprehensive natural resources management plan which accommodates local participation and sustainable resource use. Additionally, tourism offers an incentive for conservation and a threat to sustainability, if unmanaged.

a) Water development

While the use of the Delta’s water for agriculture, mining and domestic use is not necessarily ecologically unsustainable, water development plans must be carefully considered. One such project, entailing major excavations of the Boro river and the construction of three large resevoirs, was the Southern Okavango Integrated Water Development Project (SOIWDP). The SOIWDP was designed to augment water from the Boro River to meet the needs of Maun, 10 000 ha of irrigation, and the Orapa diamond mine.

While major proposals for utilizing the waters of the Okavango River and Delta within Botswana date back to the biginning of the twentieth century, the origion of the SOIWD can be dated back to early 1950s with elaboration in the 1970s.

Focusing on the lower portion of the Okavango Delta and the Boteti River, the SOIWDwas intended to achieve broad goals . These include improved utilization of land and water resources, increased food production, and creation of employment opportunities and raise the living standards for the people of Ngamiland and the Boteti Sub-District.

In January 1991, following major meeting/public hearings to solicit the views of the local communities, the Government of Botswana (GOB), showing its responsiveness to the local concerns, suspended the project and agreed to seek further review. At the invitation by the Government of Botswana (GoB), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) evaluated the proposed project and found it ill-conceived and detrimental to the ecosystem and communities of the Delta. The GOB did accept the recommendations of the report, and is supporting the sustainable alternatives such as the conjuctive use of ground and surface water. These and other sustainable and economically attractive uses of the Delta, such as ecotourism, are important in alleviating the pressure to use the resources in potentially non-renewable ways.

b) Resources Use

While the Okavango has been used for centuries by the populations in Botswana which live near it, increasing population pressure has led to unsustainable use of the natural resources by the two district residents. The expansion of the human activities without assistance to local communities in management, control and ownership, places tremendous pressure on the biophysical resources of the Delta.

c) Tourism

The wildlife and aquatic scenery of the Delta channells (and the adjacent Chobe District) is the principal tourist attraction of Botswana. The Government’s 1989 Tourism Policy could guide tourism development to improve local management and participation with the support of community organizing and training, and the guidelines for the protection of the fragile ecosystem.

Regional Collaboration

In 1994, Angola, Botswana and Namibia established the Permanent Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM) to coordinate and collaborate on the sustainable management of the basins resources. The agreement establishing OKACOM specifically advocates the use of Agenda 21 principles in natural resources management and acknowledges the Helsinki rules on the use of international waters.

The riparian states are in the process of re-submitting a request for GEF support for the execution of a basin wide Environmental Assessment (EA) and the formulation and implementation of an integrated Management Plan through OKACOM. The integrated management plan is intended to promote the sustainable development of the Okavango River Basin and the protection of the hydro-environmental and ecological intergrity, its unique wetlands and delta system.

The Modus Operandi for OKACOM

Each of the riparian countries have appointed commissioners from the relevant institutions. The Commission also has a Basin Steering Committee that works with a study manager who is mandated to coordinate the different activities pertaining to the technical work of OKACOM. Quarterly meetings are held alternately in the three capitals.

OKACOM has to date executed a Trans-Boundary Diagnostic Assessment (TDA) which has been compiled as part of the baseline data for the Okavango Commission. This has fostered the initiation of a consultative process within the basin stakeholders, established the current status of the basin as a whole, identified causes of degradation, and imminent threats, and indicated critical gaps in knowledge, policy and institutional arrangement.

The draft TDA is being subjected to a peer review process in order to comprehensively conclude the initial phase, which should lead to the next phase which focuses on the Strategic Action Plan, and ultimately, a comprehensive and integrated basin wide management plan.

Regional Threats

It is apparent from the TDA preliminary findings (the draft TDA is being expanded as gaps in the knowledge base are filled) that the natural resources of the basin are already subject to competing demands for water and land from agriculture, urban and industrial development both within and outside the basisn.

The main threats to the Okavango River Basin (ORB) arise from patterns of unsustainable development. If these threats are allowed to persist, they will result in fundamental and irreversible changes in the basin’s water balance, energy balance, and hydrochemical and hydrogeomorphological responses, all of which will impact on the productivity of the basin as a whole.

The proximate cause of basin degradation is three fold; continuation of unplanned abstraction from watercourses and aquifers; growth of effluent disposal and non-point pollution sources; and the accelerated erosion of land hydro-geomorphologically linked to the basin. But their underlying causes lie with patterns of socio-economic developments and it is clear that current socio-economic and demographic trends, particularly urbanisation, within and outside the basin will create pressures to increase water abstraction.

Key factors in the trends are; overgrazing which is already resulting in accelerated land and soil degradation in Namibia and Botswana; unplanned developments in Angola along the de-mined transport routes/corridors in the Cubango and Cuito sub-basins as post-civil-war resettlement occurs; and pressure for new and increased abstraction of raw water to service urban expansion and irrigated agriculture. It is anticipated that these factors will continue to accelerate new demands for surface and ground water in the basin and accelerate the process of land use conversion for subsistence agriculture. But it is equally apparent that the trends are outpacing policy and institutional responses in the riparian countries and it is these intermediate causes related to policy and institutional failures where intervention is necessary.

The current policy and institutional arrangements are not sufficient to address externalities associated with the basin’s freshwater resources. The consequences are twofold. First, the primacy of national interests is resulting in the imposition of transboundary externalities on specific sectoral and cro-sectoral development; these include; quality and quantity losses of water supplies for urban centres in the basin (Rundu, Maun); reduced supplies for irrigated agriculture (Caprivi and the fringes of the Delta; degraded stock watering (Caprivi, Ngamiland); reduced supply for mining (Orapa); loss of biodiversity; and compromised nature tourism (Caprivi, Panhandle, Delta,). Second, the costs of cooperation are high where barriers to communication, knowledge, and understanding persist.

A Framework for International Cooperation for the Management Plan for the Okavango Delta (Commissioning of the Review of the Management Arrangements for the Okavango Delta Wetland of International Importance)

The Government of Botswana ratified the Wetlands Convention and became a contracting party on the 4th April, 1997. The Government is collaborating with the Ramsar Convention Bureau to commission a review of the management arrangement for and the formulation and development of an Integrated Management Plan for the Okavango Delta. This will foster our adherence to the obligations of the Ramsar Convention as well as facilitate the design of a long term development plan for the delta which allows for an effective planning and sustainable utilisation of the Delta’s natural resources.

The outcome of the review, as well as the Management Plan thereof, would be fed into the Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM) process as Botswana’s plan to utilise the delta’s resources and thereby assist the decision making processes as they relate to the entire basin.

Rationale

The Government is currently formulating a Wetlands Policy and Strategy for Botswana. This is being executed in phases and the process is aimed for completion by the end of 1999. The Policy and Strategy will provide the framework for designing appropriate and effective management plans for each of the key Wetlands. The process involves a range of key steps, inclusive of, inter alia, the following;

  • execution and completion of a National Wetlands Inventory
  • the formulation of Issues pertaining to wetlands
  • the drafting of the Policy and the Strategy
  • stakeholder consultations
  • Consultation with policy bodies of Government
  • Policy adoption and implementation in accordance with the Wetlands Convention and national aspirations.

These processes do ensure that there is consensus amongst the key players in Government, parastatals, the corporate sector, communities, non governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals in the pursuit of conservation goals as they pertain to wetlands, and the building partnerships in the implementation of the policy and strategy.

In the foregoing context, the Secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands has offered to provide funds and additional expertise which will allow for undertaking a ‘design mission’ for the formulation of a management plan for the Okavango Delta.

The Terms of Reference (ToR) for the mission require that the following tasks be carried out:

  • Identify existing plans and ongoing planning processes that include wetland issues that have significant impacts on wetland conservation and wise use.
  • Review of legislation existing policies and other strategic formulations.
  • A review of existing information including the positive and negative factors of resources uses and how they impact local, national and regional interests.
  • cover not only ecological aspects, but also social and economic conditions along the legislative framework.
  • Undertake a field trips and discuss with stakeholders.
  • Prepare a draft proposal for undertaking a management planning exercises.
  • Organise a small workshop to discuss the draft proposal in order to come up with a proposal that will be submitted to the Government. Subject to the approval of the Government, this proposal will be used to raise funds for the actual planning exercises.

The proposal should also take into account the need to analyse the relationship between land users, settlement patterns and the status of the delta ecosystem. The fact that social and economic factors within the okavango basin should be considered from the national and regional context requires that special attention be given to economic and social needs of the whole population using the basin, especially the needs that can be satisfied through environmentally sound uses (wise uses).

The proposal should also consider present and potential future needs, and the information available and the data needed to have a better understanding of the trends.

The foregoing processes do provide an ideal opportunity for cross referencing the different environmental conventions; Wetlands, Biodiversity, Climate change, Drought and Desertification, inter alia, and the results thereof should foster our adherence to the concepts and principles of sustainable development in the twenty first century and beyond.


The author/resource person is a Principal Natural Resources Officer I, and Head of the Policy, Programme and Projects Division, within the Botswana National Conservation Strategy (Coordinating) Agency, and holds the following qualifications;

Bsc (Environmental Sciences - Univ. of Botswana), MSc Environmental Resource Assessment for Development Planning - Univ. of East Anglia-Norwich-UK), a Post Graduate Certificate in Land Use Planning for Rural Development -UEA-Norwhich UK), a Post Graduate Certificate in Environmental Impact Assessment and Management -Univ. of Aberdeen, Scotland UK), a Post Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Systems GIMS-RSA), a Post Graduate Certificate in Environmental Economics and Policy Analysis, Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID), (Kennedy School of Government), Harvard University, Cambridge-USA.


Bibliography

Breen, C.M. , et al, Wetlands Conservation and Management in Southern Africa: Opportunities and Challenges, IUCN, 1997

Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis, Permanent Okavango River Basin Commission (OKACOM), May, 1988

The IUCN Review of the Southern Okavango Integrated Water Development Project, IUCN, October 1992

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