With his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened, Stevie Monna, Director for Botswana’s Department of Environmental Affairs, exudes the personality of a man of action. This, by all accounts, is a good thing, as Monna and his colleagues are responsible for ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Okavango Delta, one of the great environmental wonders of the world.

The Delta is the world’s second largest Wetland Site of International Importance listed by the Ramsar Convention, and is refuge to an abundance of African wildlife untouched in their habits over the millennia. It is also home to more than 120 000 people, most of who live off the subsistence value of the Delta’s natural resources. 

In an increasingly complex world, it is difficult for the Botswana government to prioritise the challenges that face the 17 000 square kilometre Delta. A top priority, however, entails deflecting the country’s growing demand for freshwater. Three quarters of Botswana is consumed by the Kalahari Desert and the country’s rainfall is geographically disparate, ranging between 250-650mm per year. 

Monna retells the story of the 1980s, when Orapa, the world’s largest diamond mine lying southeast of the Delta, complained to the government that the groundwater feeding its storage dam was drying. The mine demanded the right to access the surface waters of the Delta. 

Our water management planning was ill-conceived. When you tamper with a natural system without information, you create problems,” says Monna bluntly. He is referring to the lack of a systematic approach to the management of the Delta at the time.

Current concerns for Botswana centre on the actions of its riparian neighbours. The Delta is the final resting place of the 1600 km long Okavango River and its myriad tributaries, most of which originate in Angola before merging and cutting through Namibia’s Caprivi Strip into Botswana’s northern Ngamiland district. 

Monna is acutely aware that Botswana has been thriving on the dual benefit of an active high income, but low volume, tourism industry. The Delta is the jewel in the Botswana tourism crown, as well providing livelihoods for the local communities residing in its reaches. The real problem is the 370 000 people who live upstream and out of Botswana’s jurisdiction. Angola is emerging from a bloody civil war and Namibia is one of the most water stressed countries on the planet. The abundant freshwater of the Okavango is a tempting resource for both these thirsty countries, making sustainable management of the entire basin an urgent priority. 

In 1994 the affected countries committed themselves to the basin-wide management of the Okavango and established the Permanent Okavango River Basin Commission (Okacom), under the banner of: “Three Countries, One River.” 

The Commission consists of three representatives from each member state and has undertaken a Trans-boundary Diagnostic Assessment to ascertain the threats and gaps relating to a basin-wide policy and appropriate institutional arrangements. Each country, however, is embroiled in achieving the balance between their national development aspirations and the utilisation of the resources that lie within their borders. This is a test for the Commission, whose aim is the equitable and sustainable management of the Okavango River – not just for the wellbeing of each country, but for the river basin as a whole.  

Botswana’s response has been the delivery of the Okavango Delta Management Plan (ODMP), a comprehensive consultative planning exercise to understand the physical and socio-economic demands of the Delta. It hopes to integrate this information into the Okacom process in due course. 

We have the most to gain and the most to lose,” explains Monna. The health of the Delta is largely dependent on the appropriate management of its upstream rivers. 

Monna believes that the international community must assist Angola and Namibia in finding suitable and sustainable development alternatives that will take the pressure off the Okavango River and, ultimately, off the Okavango Delta itself.  

The Delta is a wetland of international significance. It just happens to be in Botswana, but it is part of a much larger system which must be protected,” he explains. 

With such forthright statements, one inherently understands that the mission ahead is a task of arduous labour, infinite patience and highly skilled negotiation. 

As one of the Okacom Commissioners, himself, Monna says he is ready to take up the challenge.
Written by Alex Hetherington