Natural Gas Drilling Begins Upriver from Biodiverse Okavango Delta

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A massive natural gas drill rig has broken ground on an exploratory well just miles upstream of Namibia’s Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest protected wetlands and a crucial migratory route for the largest remaining elephant population, National Geographic reported. The drill operator, ReconAfrica, rejected the outcry from environmental advocates who say that drilling and fracking in the region will be devastating to the people and wildlife who rely on the land.

Why This Matters: ReconAfrica, an oil and gas exploration company with German, Canadian, and American stakeholders, has licensed 13,200 square miles of land in Namibia and Botswana. This land supports a variety of endangered species including African elephants, which already face population declines from poaching and climate change. Drilling in the region also endangers locally managed wildlife reserves that fall on the licensed land, and which support important tourism jobs. Residents in the region also rely on groundwater for drinking, and due to the shallow water tables in the region, fracking could easily contaminate this water source for over one million people.  Which begs the question, given the trajectory of renewable energy, is this development worth the risks?

Local Outrage

Communities across Namibia are outraged by the decision to drill in the region arguing they were kept in the dark about ReconAfrica’s plans. Namibian resident Veruschka Dumeni told National Geographic, “We only heard about this project in September [2020] in the press… when the commencement of the project was near, when the company had raised financing, built investor interest, and already obtained the rights, only then did the nation and affected communities come to know of it.”  The Omatako river, which feeds into the Okavango Delta, has no outlet, which means that instead of contaminants flowing out of the region, they could become a permanent fixture.

Critics have also pointed out the ReconAfrica doesn’t have a solid plan for community development despite promising job growth. The project “seems engineered more to fast-track the production of oil than to promote the development of the communities affected most,” said Nikki Reisch, director of the Center for International Environmental Law’s Climate and Energy Program.

Global Outrage

Several global activist groups have started petitions and online campaigns that have garnered significant support, and in 2019, National Geographic produced a documentary on the dangers of human activity in the region. UNESCO was able to negotiate with the Botswanan government to have the Tsodilo Hills World Heritage site excluded from the licensed region. Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, emphasized that UNESCO has “always taken a strong position that oil and gas exploration or exploitation activities are incompatible with World Heritage status.”  Test drilling in the region became so controversial that the international hacktivist group Anonymous got involved in October 2020, shutting down many Namibian government websites, including that of the president.

Excuses, Excuses

ReconAfrica “will ensure that there is no environmental impact from these wells,” company spokesperson Claire Preece told National Geographic. Despite being just 160 miles upriver from a global hub of biodiversity, and right on top of a crucial source of drinking water, Preece said that test drilling area “is not situated in a sensitive area at all and all the exploration activities are highly localized.” Local residents and Indigenous communities don’t buy it.

The company claims it reached out to the community for feedback, but only provided a contact email address in English when 85% of the region’s residents do not have reliable access to the internet nor do they speak English. In fact, the company’s plans didn’t even reach the desk of Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s Minister of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, who said his agency was never consulted about the permits.

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