The legacy of the Okavango Delta Management Plan (ODMP), the overriding planning process for the sustainable utilisation of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, might very well be founded on its differentiation between perception and reality. Evaluating the economic worth of the Delta’s natural resources and environmental services is proof of this principle.

If we don’t value the resources, then the Delta, itself, is effectively valueless,” explains Natural Resource Economist at the University of Botswana’s Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre, Dr Gagiotseope Mmopelwa. He believes numerous international wetlands have been irreversibly damaged because their true economic value was never quantified and never understood by decision-makers. 

Despite this recognition in Botswana, a number of critical economic challenges do, however, face the ODMP. 

At 43 per cent, Ngamiland, the district in which the Delta lies, has the highest official unemployment rate in Botswana. Many of these people are dependent on the Delta, and over-harvesting of its resources is a common feature. 

The other major income earner in the region, tourism, is beset with its own problems. Ecological damage is caused by game viewing vehicles and by waste generated by the numerous lodges and campsites. Conflicts often occur between the animals that the tourism industry relies upon, and the subsistence activities of local villagers. This dilemma is clearly observed in the destruction of croplands by free roaming elephants. 

In response, the ODMP commissioned a high level team of economists to establish the direct, indirect and intrinsic value of the environmental goods of the Delta. This involved the use of various economic frameworks; desktop analysis of previous studies; focus group discussion and primary data collected in a survey of over 430 households in 13 villages throughout the Delta region. 

As team member and current Deputy Coordinator of the ODMP, Mokgadi Monamati explains, few people recognise the value of the Delta’s natural resources. 

Just think what would happen here if the natural resources suddenly disappeared,” she says, immediately reaching to the crux of the issue. 

The direct value of tourism to the Botswana GDP was calculated at P401 million (USD65 million), and that of agricultural activity P44 million (USD7 million) per annum. Veld products such as mopane worms (a delicacy in parts of southern Africa); marula berries used for drinks, nuts and sometimes soaps and oils; and, ornate grass baskets used in the world famous Okavango baskets were collectively valued at P29 million (just under USD5 million). 

The indirect value assessment of the Delta attempted to gauge the worth of ecosystem services such as groundwater recharge, wildlife refuge, carbon sequestration, water purification, and the scientific and education value of the Delta. At the acknowledgement of the economists, the quantification of such value is dependent on what initial assumptions are made in the economic modelling. However, a realistic value of between P200-400 million (USD32-64 million) was reached – mostly from the carbon sequestration services of the Delta.   

Although tourism is by far the highest earner per unit of land, there is a strong call within the evaluation to ensure that its benefits “trickle down” to local populations through community-based tourism and joint venture projects. The strengthening and diversification of other economic activities in the Delta is also encouraged. 

The ODMP must also be a rural development model, not just conservation,” says Gaborone-based economist and team member Jaap Arntzen. However, for Arntzen, it is not a zero-sum game. 

The high indirect use value of the Delta is a clear indication that government must take the maintenance of the ecosystem very seriously,” he says. The loss of the Delta’s ecosystem services will result in economic fallout across Botswana. 

Monamati is, herself, a strong proponent for the further development of veld products. 

”We need to create niche markets. Just like someone initially did for diamonds,” she says, referring to Botswana’s biggest income earning activity. “However, not even diamonds are forever. The key to development is to create economic choices.”

This line of thinking will become increasingly important as unknown factors like climate change and upstream activities begin to impact on the functioning of the Delta. The ODMP Final Framework Management Plan itself highlights that over half of the Delta is under some form of wildlife utilisation; climate change alone could reduce the annual flooding area of the Delta by up to 55 per cent, resulting in a serious diminishing of economic choices and opportunities. 

The information is now available. Decision makers can no longer ignore the real economic value of a wetland.
Written by Alex Hetherington