Okavango: Miracle of Water
We finally had an opportunity one morning to sleep in, and I felt spoiled for waking after sunrise. Hippos mooed like cows in the river that flows just outside the rooms, yawning their massive jaws. We were told that they kill more people in Botswana than any other wild animal. They’re aggressive and surprisingly quick given their girth.
In Botswana, a country the size of France with a population of just 1.6 million, one might imagine that competition for the water of the Delta—from humans, anyway—is not that fierce. One might argue that this is why the Okavango has remained one of the most pristine wetlands on Earth, largely undeveloped, the wildlife free to roam.
But this is not the case. The Okavango River Basin extends some 700,000 square kilometers across Angola, Namibia, and Botswana. Not only does the Delta in its natural state face threats from human populations and agricultural interests in Botswana itself, but also it risks diversion for dams and fresh water supplies by the people living in these neighboring countries to the North.
Following breakfast, we had a meeting with members of OKACOM, the Okavango River Basin Permanent Commission. The agreement, signed in 1994, commits Angola, Namibia, and Botswana to coordinating environmentally sustainable water resources development, while addressing the socio-economic needs of each. In fact, one of the reasons why I wanted to come to this region was to explore the rare and admirable cooperation between these nations.
Portia Segomelo has been on the Commission since it was founded, representing Botswana. She exuded a soft-spoken, eloquent confidence. She explained, “The thing that brought us together is the principle that water is life. Regardless of where you are sitting, or the boundaries of countries, there will always be a need for water…In Botswana, we have the benefit of the tourism industry because Angola and Namibia allow water to flow here. So we share those benefits upstream, investing in research and management of the water resources.”
The process is long and expensive, Portia said, both in terms of time and money. It’s challenging to ensure that everyone’s views are represented. But the advantages are immeasurable. “We have not fought over water yet. We see water as a source of cooperation.”
Botswana and its neighbors really do serve as a role model. I found Portia’s message particularly inspiring given the situation in our next major Expedition: Blue Planet destination—the West Bank. There, we partnered with the Arava Institute, a non-profit I had long admired for their efforts to bring Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians together in peaceful collaboration to solve environmental issues.