Opinion Protect the Okavango River Basin from corporate drilling

Botswana's Okavango Delta is shown. (© Peter Moore)
Botswana's Okavango Delta is shown. (© Peter Moore)

Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, is co-founder of the nonprofit Archewell Foundation and is president of African Parks, a nongovernmental organization. Reinhold Mangundu is a Namibian environmental activist, conservationist and poet.

The Okavango watershed is a natural beating heart that has nourished humans and wildlife in Southern Africa for generations — and it’s at risk.

The rejuvenating waters of this complex and beautiful ecosystem — so vast it’s visible from space — ebb and flow from the highlands of Angola to the Okavango River in Namibia’s Kavango region, down to the protected Okavango Delta in Botswana.

The Okavango is a force of life, providing the main source of water for nearly 1 million Indigenous and local people and some of the planet’s most majestic wildlife, including critically endangered species. Though drought-ridden for much of the year, the region averages 2.5 trillion gallons of water flow during flooding season.

But there is an imminent threat on the horizon: corporate oil drilling.

The Okavango River Basin is under siege by ReconAfrica, a Canadian oil and gas company that has been granted licenses for exploratory drilling in an area of Namibia and Botswana larger than some European countries. We believe this would pillage the ecosystem for potential profit. Some things in life are best left undisturbed to carry out their purpose as a natural benefit. This is one of them.

We have both found sanctuary and inspiration in the Okavango, and the environmental effects of drilling are a critical concern. A recent pipeline leak off the coast of Southern California pumped more than 140,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific. In July, an oil company lit the ocean on fire in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is no way to repair the damage from these kinds of mistakes. Drilling is an outdated gamble that reaps disastrous consequences for many, and incredible riches for a powerful few. It represents a continued investment in fossil fuels instead of renewable energies.

ReconAfrica said last year that it anticipates discovering up to 32 billion barrels of oil in the Okavango. Some estimates suggest a total closer to 120 billion barrels — as if this were a good thing.

Many civil society organizations, geologists and conservationists have criticized ReconAfrica’s plans, questioning whether its environmental impact assessments sufficiently analyze the effect on local wells and aquifers, the fragile watershed and broader ecosystem.

Concern is also growing among local community members that the company’s vision of economic growth and long-term responsible resource development will fail to materialize. History is replete with examples of mega-profit projects that don’t benefit Indigenous and local people, such as the ongoing oil spills in the Niger Delta.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers and fishers depend on clean water flowing down to the Okavango Delta. In other projects, extractive development has used vast quantities of water and can leave toxic pollutants in its wake. ReconAfrica’s materials indicate it may drill for 25 years, and because the region’s waters eventually drain into the Kalahari Desert, pollutants could accumulate.

The risk of drilling will always outweigh the perceived reward. In a region already facing the abuse of exploitation, poaching and fires, the risk is even higher. Knowing the above, why would you be drilling for oil in such a place?

Further, the world is slowly beginning to adapt to greener energies and the power of nature-based solutions. The ecological, moral and economic imperatives to protect our natural resources eclipse the financial incentives of drilling.

Over the summer, the United Nations’ panels on climate change and biodiversity released a joint warning about the human-driven twin crises of climate change and biodiversity decline. These organizations are made up of internationally renowned scientists, researchers and other experts.

With their warning in mind, the world must take swift action to transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean, green and renewable energies.

So this is a moment to ask: How will we define, or redefine, progress?

Is it by threatening entire communities with potential pollution of their farms and broader landscape?

Is it by repelling the tourists who travel from around the globe to see a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Key Biodiversity Area, an irreplaceable place of importance to the planet’s overall health and biodiversity?

Is it by investing in fossil fuels that inhibit clean-energy innovation — all for oil that has yet to be found?

We think not.

To protect the Okavango River Basin, we call on the world to stand in solidarity with us, our allies and local communities in advocating a full moratorium on oil and gas development in the region. We also encourage investors to note who profits — notably, ReconAfrica and its partners — and who is at risk from likely environmental destruction.

This region is far more valuable in its natural state than any oil and gas reserves buried beneath it. Fortunately, this type of effort has succeeded before. With support from principled leadership, Costa Rica was one of the first countries to announce a moratorium on oil exploration — and has extended it to 2050.

Botswana and Namibia have shown interest in becoming the renewable energy hub of Africa with a commitment to a visionary solar project with the United States via USAID’s Power Africa. We applaud this commitment, which illustrates a better way forward.

Now, the choice is simple: Either we honor our natural and life-sustaining ecosystems, preserving them for generations to come, or we exploit them on a path to permanent destruction.

Will you stand with us?