The governments of Namibia and Botswana are facing concerns over the potential risks to their precious water resources as they have granted a license to the Canadian firm ReconAfrica for oil prospecting in the Cubango Okavango River Basin, an expansive area spanning 34,000km².
The vast river basin encompasses 700,000km² and comprises an intricate network of river systems spread across Angola, Namibia, and Botswana. Two significant rivers, the Cubango and Cuito, originate from the Angolan highlands and merge with the Okavango River at the Angola-Namibia border before flowing into the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
The Okavango River is a lifeline for over half a million people residing in Namibia and Botswana. The basin sustains livelihood activities such as arable farming, livestock farming, fishing, and tourism.
The Okavango Delta, a designated World Heritage Site, is a critical contributor to Botswana’s tourism industry. It ranks among the largest freshwater wetlands in southern Africa and is home to an astounding array of biodiversity, including over 1,000 plant species, more than 480 bird species, 130 mammal species, and various reptiles and fish.
Experts with a specialization in groundwater resource assessment and protection have conducted an evaluation of the Okavango River and Delta’s vulnerability to oil and gas drilling. The study highlights the particular concerns about potential impacts on water resources in this ecologically sensitive area.
Reasons to Worry
It is worrying that oil and gas extraction is being considered in this area. The current exploration licence in Namibia allows the company to drill exploratory stratigraphic wells. Drilling near the Omatako River in Namibia already endangers the groundwater since the drilling waste fluids have been discarded in unlined pits. Most people in this arid region rely on groundwater, which can easily be contaminated when the water table is shallow, as it is here.
ReconAfrica estimates that the area has large volumes of oil and gas resources, though it has not yet fully assessed whether recovering them would be economical. The resources are in a site about the size of the Eagle Ford shale field in Texas, a very large oil and gas deposit.
Several geologists have noted, however, that the resources are unlikely, in their view, to be economically viable, based on the geological information of the region.
Meanwhile, the Namibian government granted Recon exploration licences without following due procedure for its environmental impact assessment. This is despite the fact that the lease area includes parts of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Park and the Okavango River.
Contaminated groundwater from proposed drill sites could reach the Okavango Delta even faster along another route: certain geological structures underground. These structures – grabens and dykes – have associated faulting and fractures respectively, along which groundwater can travel.
The geological structures in the area are associated with parts of the Earth’s crust that are tectonically active: they might change. This makes it more complicated to assess the Okavango Delta’s vulnerability. Existing permeable structures can serve as pathways for groundwater contamination. Tectonic stresses can create new permeable structures or modify ones that were previously impermeable.
Initial calculations, using publicly accessible data, indicate that contamination from drilling activities that travels via geological structures could reach the Okavango Delta within just four days.
Revisiting Clearance Certificate: The Urgent Call for Caution in Oil Drilling
ReconAfrica’s environmental impact assessment for oil drilling in the region failed to identify any significant risks, leading to the Namibian government granting an updated environmental clearance certificate to the company. However, the assessment lacked sufficient data to determine the potential impact on groundwater, and it downplayed the risk of contamination.
In response, our study raises serious concerns about the potential dire consequences of allowing oil and gas extraction in the Cubango Okavango River Basin. Based on our findings, we strongly recommend suspending all oil and gas extraction activities in the Okavango region until a comprehensive understanding of groundwater sources, pathways, and receptors is established.
To safeguard natural resources effectively, future environmental impact assessments must be more diligent in obtaining all relevant information. This will ensure that all potential risks to water resources are accurately identified, enabling the appropriate protection measures to be implemented.