Most people that visit the Okavango Delta are so taken aback by this vast maze of channels, lagoons, floodplains, flats, crossings, and islands that they assume that it must be a World Heritage Site. When informed that it is not a World Heritage Site, they all sit back, shake their heads, and disagree, lamenting the Botswana government and anyone else that could be involved in this travesty. The next question, having now thought about it, is: “How will World Heritage Status help the Okavango Delta?”
Dr Karen Ross (Okavango World Heritage Project) explains: “What a wonderful designation for the Okavango Delta if it is recognized as a Natural World Heritage site. There can be no better branding and marketing tool for communities and businesses involved in tourism – a sector which provides about 70 % of livelihoods in the region.”
Recognition as a site of global importance that needs to be saved for future generations is a powerful statement. With commercial hunting being phased out and more lodges and concessions being established it would appear that the Okavango Delta is doing fine. The facts are that poaching is on the rise in the areas to the north and est of the Okavango Delta, cattle are encroaching, and signs of pollution are beginning to appear in the main channels due to excessive boat traffic. This complex wetland ecosystem is, in many ways, an anachronisms in this day and age, preserved up until recently by border and civil wars in the Angolan highlands, all the way up to the source of the Okavango River near Huambo. Today, the Okavango Delta is faced by threats of new dam developments to support irrigation schemes and agricultural development in the catchment. Land mines are being removed and wildlife like elephants and general game are moving back into the catchment. People are, however, also migrating into these areas and signs of development are becoming more apparent. Namibia have repeatedly proposed a hydro-electric weir across the Okavango River at Popa Falls that would seriously hamper the functioning of the delta. There is no doubt that the future of this proposed World Heritage Site hinges on developments up in the catchment, which could have minimal impacts if the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site is considered in any development upstream – agriculture, mining, power generation or otherwise.
Dr Ross continues: “Such a listing is also an important extra-layer of protection for the Delta, which lies at the end point of the Okavango River Basin, and thus could be impacted by upstream developments from Angola and Namibia. Further, within Botswana there is also greater protection, for instance mining is not permitted in any World Heritage sites. Finally, a UNESCO World Heritage site, while retaining its sovereign status, has 189 State Parties monitoring the property through the Convention. the World Heritage Convention has more member States than any other UN Convention, and it is party to international law.”