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ReconAfrica, a Canadian petroleum exploration company, announced in August 2020 that it is planning to embark on oil and gas drilling projects in a protected area in Africa that supplies the Okavango Delta region in Botswana with water, threatening endangered wildlife and communities living in the area. 

ReconAfrica has acquired the rights for oil drilling in more than 35 000 sq km of north-east Namibia and north-west Botswana, along the banks of the Okavango River in the Delta region in the newly-proclaimed Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. The area is larger than Belgium and ReconAfrica says that it could hold up to 31 billion barrels of crude oil- more than the US’ consumption in four years if consumption remained the same as in 2019. Fracking also seems to be a part of the company’s plans. 

While the US is the largest oil and gas producer in the world, it has created massive problems for the environment; hydraulic fracturing has caused poor air and water quality, community health and safety concerns, long-term economic issues and environmental crises like habitat loss. 

Along with the conservation area, the license covers 11 separate community nature concessions areas, one World Heritage site and part of the five-country Kaza Park- the largest protected area in southern Africa. It also includes the last refuge of the San people with a future drill site near the World Heritage site of Tsodilo Hills in Botswana.

Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment, says that he is not aware of the project and that any project such as this should have gone through environmental review and permitting processes. He says, “There needs to be public consultation. We monitor all the adverts that come out in the newspaper, and we monitor all the adverts that come out around EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) and we haven’t picked this up at all.” 

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According to the National Geographic, experts who have reviewed the Namibian EIAs for the test wells have pointed to “serious problems” with the way they were carried out. They pointed to a lack of physical assessments of fauna and flora and to the possible effects on local communities and other people, on archaeological sites, and on groundwater and surface water. They said that the assessment, consisting only of desktop studies without any fieldwork, is not sufficient to justify the proposed drilling. 

Environmental Concern

The area is home to Africa’s largest migrating elephant herd as well as endangered African painted dogs, sable antelope and rare flora. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ReconAfrica’s license covers the territories of seven endangered animal species, including the grey crowned crane and the African wild dog, and four critically endangered animals, including the black rhinoceros and white-backed vulture. It’s also home to 20 other species listed as “vulnerable,” including Temminck’s pangolin and the martial eagle. It is also an economic powerhouse, bringing in around USD$32 million a year in sustainable tourism revenue. 

Temminck’s Pangolin (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

More importantly, the Okavango River, in the north of the potential fracking and oil drilling zone, is the sole provider of water to the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s most visited tourist destination. The area supports more than a million people with food, employment and fresh water.

Infrastructure for oil and gas drilling involves the construction of roads, pipelines and buildings that “could all negatively affect important animal habitat, migratory pathways and biodiversity,” according to the WWF. Fracking is of particular concern because it requires large amounts of water and can cause earthquakes, pollute water, release greenhouse gases and lead to cancer and other birth defects. For wildlife, fracking can poison the food chain, destroy habitat and cause mass die-offs of fish and other aquatic species. 

However, Namibia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy is emphasising the potential positive effects, saying that the “the socioeconomic impacts of exploratory drilling will result in the employment of locals” and many other benefits, such as new water wells for communities near the proposed drill sites. The Namibian government holds a 10% stake in ReconAfrica’s oil and gas development.

There are mixed messages being communicated within this project, proving that either the Namibian government is being lied to by ReconAfrica or it doesn’t know the full scope of the project. The government says that it has not given the company permission to frack, however ReconAfrica says that it’s entitled to a 25-year production license

Implications for Communities and Wildlife

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it takes about 1.5 million gallons of water to frack a single oil and gas well; ReconAfrica says that it ultimately hopes to drill hundreds of wells in the Kavango Basin. 

This has serious implications for the food security of the country. According to the UN, Namibia cannot feed itself; its farms support about 70% of its people, and the lands under ReconAfrica’s drilling license have more than 600 working farms, some irrigated with water from the Okavango River. Drilling here could further impact this fragile food supply. 

The company plans to begin “test” drilling as soon as this or next month.

Featured image by: Flickr

Earth.Org reported on July 2 that at least 350 elephant deaths in the Okavango Delta in Botswana had occurred mysteriously. It has now emerged that the elephants died from ingesting toxins produced by cyanobacteria, according to government officials. 

The deaths of the elephants between May and June baffled conservationists who called the mass die-off a “conservation disaster.” It was initially suggested that they died from a rodent virus called encephalomyocarditis, or toxins from algal blooms. Government have now said that they will be testing waterholes for algal blooms in the next rainy season to reduce the risk of another mass die-off. 

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Mmadi Reuben, principal veterinary officer at the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, said in a news conference, “Our latest tests have detected cyanobacterial neurotoxins to be the cause of deaths. These are bacteria found in water. However, we have many questions that still need to be answered such as why the elephants only and why that area only. We have a number of hypotheses we are investigating.” Reuben said that water samples were tested at laboratories in Botswana, South Africa and the US, but declined to give further details. 

Earth.Org previously reported that 70% of the elephant deaths in Botswana happened near water holes containing algal blooms, which can produce toxic microscopic organisms called cyanobacteria. Toxins were initially ruled out because no other species died- except for one horse- but elephants could be particularly susceptible because of the time they spend bathing and drinking large quantities of water. 

However, Dr Niall McCann, director of conservation at UK-based charity National Park Rescue, is skeptical. “Just because cyanobacteria were found in the water, that does not prove that the elephants died from exposure to these toxins,” he says.

The climate crisis is increasing the intensity and frequency of harmful algal blooms, making the issue more likely to happen again. In the Antarctic region, algal blooms have been turning snow green, which will exacerbate snow melt. McCann says, “New emerging infectious diseases are happening all the time and the more we look into epidemiology the more we discover we don’t know.”

Wildlife authorities in Botswana are investigating the mysterious deaths of over 150 elephants over a three-month period in the Okavango Delta in the northwest of the country, although poaching and poisoning have been ruled out. 

According to reports, the carcasses have been found intact, suggesting that they were not poached. Poisoning by humans and anthrax has also been ruled out, the latter of which is naturally occurring in soil in this region of Botswana and which killed more than 100 elephants in 2019.

Regional Wildlife Coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe, says, “We are still awaiting results on the exact cause of death.”

While Africa’s overall elephant population is declining, Botswana is a conservation success story. Thanks to well managed reserves in the country, elephant numbers have increased from 80 000 in the late 1990s to 130 000 today. Botswana is home to almost a third of Africa’s elephants. 

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Why are elephants dying in Botswana? 

However, as the population grows, so too have conflicts grown between elephants and farmers; they are considered pests to farmers, whose crops have been destroyed by roaming elephants and in 2017, nine stray elephants were accidentally electrocuted after one elephant bumped into a telephone pole and a power line fell on them. 

Last year, President Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting imposed by the previous administration, but the COVID-19 outbreak meant that the hunting season in April was unsuccessful as hunters from badly-hit countries could not enter Botswana. 

Officials have warned local villagers not to consume the dead animals’ meat and are burning the carcasses. They expect more animals to die over the coming weeks. 

Ntshebe says, “We are still experiencing elephants dying in the Okavango Panhandle. We also see elephants that show that they are sick and are on the verge of dying.” 

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