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Four female lions lie in the grass at dusk.
WILD OASIS Female lions gather at twilight in the Okavango Delta. © FRANS LANTING

Magazine Articles

African Oasis: The Okavango Delta

To safeguard the Okavango Delta, one of the largest wetlands in the world, TNC is starting at the source.

Spring 2021

Julian Smith Freelance Writer

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At the height of Botswana’s six-month dry season, rainwater from Angola’s lush highlands spills into the heart of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, setting in motion an ecological spectacle unlike anywhere else on Earth. With the influx of 2.5 trillion gallons of water, the Okavango Delta—a permanent swamp surrounded by one of the continent’s driest expanses—doubles in size. Fueled by the promise of a fertile floodplain, some 200,000 large mammals return to the delta, now an oasis roughly half the size of Massachusetts. 

The floodwaters usher in more than 700 species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles. African fish eagles soar above prides of lions and the continent’s largest population of savanna elephants. Wild dogs prowl through thorn scrub as cheetahs stalk warthogs and wetland antelopes. Hippos and Nile crocodiles lurk among reeds and papyrus. The delta hums with life for several months until the floodwaters evaporate or recede into the red desert sands. 

A group of African elephants visits a waterhole.
Looking Glass As they move through the delta, savanna elephants tamp down trails that become open water channels. © FRANS LANTING
A map shows the Okavango River basin and the surrounding desert, forest and savanna.
The River That Never Reaches the Sea Rainwater that falls in the remote highlands of Angola makes a four- to seven-month journey south, over more than 600 miles, before dead-ending in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. There, the river transforms a swampy inland delta into a lush maze of marshy grasslands veined with waterways. © Mapping Specialists, Ltd.

The Cubango-Okavango River Basin covers 125,000 square miles in Angola, Namibia and Botswana and provides water for 1 million people. Widespread poverty plagues the upper basin, and the majority of people rely on livelihoods like agriculture, fishing, forestry and tourism that draw on the region’s natural resources. The delta itself is largely protected by a mosaic of game reserves, wildlife management areas and community trusts, but most of the biodiversity-rich lands, rivers and lakes in Angola that feed it are not. And as the country emerges from decades of civil war, more than 50 large-scale water infrastructure projects are under consideration, including dams for hydropower, commercial irrigation works and municipal water storage. These projects could divert floodwaters away from the delta, disrupting one of the most magnificent large-animal migrations in the world and crippling the livelihoods of the people who depend on it. 

Green islands dot the wetland in the Okavango delta.
Jewel of the Kalahari Once covered by the vast Lake Makgadikgadi, the Okavango Delta is now a seasonal wetland. © FRANS LANTING

Now is the time to act to protect the Okavango by creating viable alternatives for Angola to grow and develop, says Matt Brown, regional managing director for The Nature Conservancy in Africa. “If we can get it right now, we can save one of the most amazing natural places in the world, before the threats become a reality.”

A blue sky with puffy white clouds reflects in the still water of the Okavango delta.
Part-Time Paradise The Okavango's life-giving waters support abundant wildlife, which drives a robust tourism industry based around dozens of camps and lodges. © Frans Lanting

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Since 2018, TNC has been partnering with the government of Angola and the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM)—as well as organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, Peace Parks Foundation, Conservation International, Namibia Nature Foundation and National Geographic’s Okavango Wilderness Project—on a three-pronged approach that balances the needs of people and nature across the basin. The first goal is to plan smart development in the headwaters region of Angola. To that end, TNC is working with the Angolan government and international energy company Gesto to create a master plan that prioritizes low-impact renewable energy sources, like solar power, over traditional large-scale hydropower. The effort could help protect nearly 33,000 acres of critical floodplain habitat by carefully siting low-carbon energy projects away from wildlife corridors and intact natural landscapes. 

A group of wattled cranes takes off from a grassy spot in the Okavango Delta.
Lift Off Wattled cranes take flight. © FRANS LANTING

Community-based conservation also is critical, says TNC’s Okavango Basin Program Director Sekgowa Motsumi. “People are dependent on natural resources. We want to help them take full ownership of these resources, manage them and also derive a livelihood.” Workshops with communities and local partners such as the Association for Environment Conservation and Integrated Rural Development are a key part of pilot projects in forestry and fisheries. The work capitalizes on TNC’s track record of creating natural resource management plans in Kenya and Tanzania, and includes the first-ever nationwide meeting of community-based conservation organizations in Angola.

A herd of topis stands amid tall golden grasses.
Camouflage A herd of topis blends in with tall, golden grasses at dawn in the Okavango Delta. © FRANS LANTING

More than 50 water infrastructure projects could divert floodwaters away from the delta, disrupting one of the most magnificent large-animal migrations in the world.

To support these efforts into the future, TNC, along with its partners, codeveloped a long-term financing plan designed to fit the complex politics and geography of the basin. While Angola provides 95% of the delta’s water, it is Botswana that largely reaps the benefits of ecotourism centered on the region’s annual wildlife spectacle. In short, development decisions made upstream have a significant effect on the people and animals who live downstream. The Cubango-Okavango River Basin Fund will aim to balance the economic disparity on both sides of the basin by supporting community development efforts while also promoting the sustainable use of natural resources. The Conservancy has created similar water-protection funds in Ecuador, Kenya and South Africa.

A hippo grazes on grass in a watery spot.
Grazing Hippos graze on land at night and spend most of the day submerged to avoid the sun. © FRANS LANTING

Making an impact at the scale of a river basin requires an extensive coalition of partners, donors and governments, and two years in, TNC’s efforts are showing great promise, Motsumi says. In addition to bringing together multiple organizations, TNC is working closely with the governments of Angola, Botswana and Namibia through OKACOM, a planning group, to jointly manage water resources and encourage sustainable development in the region.

This is the first step of a decades-long project to ensure the Okavango endures, Brown says. “We have to protect this place. We can’t let it disappear on our watch. We have the tools to do it.”

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Julian Smith is a freelance writer who frequently reports on science and conservation. He is the author of the books Crossing the Heart of Africa and Smokejumper.