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Potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed abstraction of water from the Okavango River in Namibia

P Ashton


The Namibian Department of Water Affairs has in the past faced considerable pressure to relieve the water shortages caused by recent droughts. One of the options considered in 1996, following poor runoff during the 1994/95 and 1995/96 seasons, was a proposal to abstract some 17Mm3 of water per year from the Okavango River at Rundu, and transfer this via a 260km long pipeline to the head of the Eastern National Water Carrier at the town of Grootfontein. Part of the overall evaluation of this scheme included an assessment of the potential environmental impacts that could arise. An initial environmental evaluation was conducted from a point approximately 40 kilometres upstream of Rundu in Namibia, to the distal end of the Okavango Delta at Maun in Botswana.

Hydrological studies showed that the proposed abstraction represented a reduction of approximately 0.32% in the mean annual flow of the Okavango River at Rundu. The abstraction represents 0.17% of the mean annual flow at Mukwe, downstream of the Cuito River confluence. The adverse effects of the proposed water abstraction scheme would be extremely small along the Okavango River in Namibia, whilst outflows from the lower end of the Okavango Delta to the Thamalakane River would be reduced by some 1.44Mm3/year (11%). Additional studies showed that these effects could be reduced by some 10–13% if abstraction was confined to the falling limb of the hydrograph.

Hydrological simulations have shown that the maximum likely loss of inundated area in the Okavango Delta would total approximately 7km2 out of some 8 000km2. This potential loss in inundated area would be concentrated in the lower reaches of the seasonal swamps and seasonally inundated grasslands, specifically in the lower reaches of the Boro, Gomoti, Santantadibe and Thaoge channels. However, these effects would most likely be expressed as a shoreline effect, with the loss in area spread out over the shoreline and periphery of islands and would not be restricted to a single specific area. This anticipated loss in inundated area is unlikely to have measurable impacts on environmental components.

Overall, the study found no `fatal flaws' which would prevent the water abstraction scheme from proceeding and the anticipated effects on the Okavango system are more likely to be seen in the Okavango Delta, rather than along the Okavango River. The anticipated ecological implications of the scheme were small in spatial extent and are unlikely to be perceptible against the natural year-to-year variability in inundation of the Okavango Delta or outflows to the Thamalakane River. However, the public perceptions of the proposed water transfer project were strongly negative and appeared to be at least in part due to the very low water levels in the Okavango River and Okavango Delta during the past three years and during the study period. These low water levels were amongst the lowest on record and it is likely that the public would attribute any adverse effect recorded in the future to the abstraction scheme, whether this were true or not. These negative perceptions of the desirability and acceptability of the proposed scheme were strongly linked to potential adverse affects on the tourism industry along the Okavango River and in the Okavango Delta, with possible adverse economic effects on local residents.

Keywords: Okavango River; Okavango Delta; ecological impacts; water abstraction; sustainability

(Afr J Aqua Sci: 2000 25: 175-182)

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1727-9364
print ISSN: 1608-5914