Sharing natural resources is often a source of conflict. That has been the case with the Okavango River, which flows through Angola, Namibia and Botswana. In a regional project funded by Sida, the river is being used as a tool to create a dialogue between the countries, with a focus on environmental and conflict management.
Once a year the summer rain whips the ground of the Angolan highlands. A vast amount of water gathers in the country’s south-eastern areas, which provides life to the Okavango River, one of the longest in Africa. The river runs down from Angola’s mountain terrain, through Namibia’s desert areas, to the animal-rich Okavango Delta in Botswana.
The Okavango River is vital in providing for people in one of Africa’s driest regions. As the population increases and more industries appear, cross-border strategies are needed to ensure the quality and supply of fresh water in the three countries. A sustainable plan for the future of the river is also highly important to maintain the biological diversity of the Okavango Delta, a unique oasis in the Kalahari Desert.
New secretariat creates new possibilities for co-operation
Therése Sjömander Magnusson is Sida’s programme officer for regional support to the Okavango River Commission’s (OKACOM) newly appointed secretariat, whose task is to co-ordinate the countries’ co-operational projects around the river. From the Swedish embassy in Maputo, Mozambique, she speaks hopefully about the new opportunities that have opened up through greater dialogue between the countries.
“After Angola’s civil war ended in the late 1990s, it became clear that the countries were strongly interested in co-operating on common resource management regarding the river,” Sjömander Magnusson says. “The Okavango River has the potential to unite these countries, but co-ordination is needed and that is where the secretariat enters into the picture.”
What type of co-operation has been begun through OKACOM and its secretariat?
“For example, hydrologists from the three countries meet before the rains to assess the risk of flood or drought,” Sjömander Magnusson says. “They exchange information and develop regional strategies to minimize the negative risks.
“Representatives from the countries’ water ministries then meet often to produce material that can form the basis for various decisions from OKACOM. These decisions will lead to sustainable water resource management throughout the region. It has a lot to do with building up dependable background material for the countries’ politicians.”
The river has previously given rise to various conflicts. How much of the project is based on conflict management?
“This is the main reason why Sweden started leading a dialogue about possible support at an early stage,” Sjömander Magnusson says. “It isn’t just about more people having better and safer access to water. The conflict perspective is a vital reason for our support, and in the case of the Okavango it’s a very important matter.
“People have even turned to the commission regarding other issues that perhaps have more national interest. They’ve used it as a forum to air issues of both a technical and political character to prevent conflicts and use the dialogue function that has been established through the commission.”
What will characterize OKACOM’s work in the coming years?
“The secretariat has existed for less than two years, so many initiatives are still in the planning phase,” Sjömander Magnusson says. “In the next two years, they’re going to implement many of the projects that are proposed in OKACOM’s future development strategy for the Okavango’s watershed. We will then also decide which projects we have the opportunity to go in and support.”
OKAVANGO – facts The Okavango Delta is the largest freshwater marsh south of the equator.
• The Okavango Delta varies in size with between 7,000 sq km during dry periods, to 16,000 sq km during high water periods.
• The total population in the Okavango’s watershed in 2000 was 1,113,000. Of these, 76 per cent were living in Angola, 13 per cent in Namibia and 11 per cent in Botswana.
• Angola provides the river with 94.5 per cent of its water, Namibia with 2.9 per cent and Botswana with 2.6 per cent.
• About 60 million people in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) lack clean drinking water.