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Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?

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ReconAfrica’s Jarvie-1 rig at the third well drilled close to Kawe in the Kavango East Region of Namibia. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?

Expectations amongst local people of the Kavango Region in Namibia that Canadian company ReconAfrica’s oil and gas find close to the town of Rundu, will change their lives for the better, are high. But would an oil and gas project in this region be a blessing or a curse?  

By Leon Louw founder and editor of WhyAfrica

“I’ve seen people from villages around Rundu on their knees at meetings praying that ReconAfrica’s oil and gas find will be commercially viable,” says Mwanyengwa Ndapewoshali Shapwanale

Director Communication and Stakeholder Relations at ReconNamibia, the Namibian subsidiary of ReconAfrica. Shapwanale met me in Rundu before we drove to Kawe, a village in Kavango East where ReconAfrica drilled their first stratigraphic well, in 2021. A few kilometers away, at the Macadena village, ReconAfrica deployed its Jarvie-1 rig to drill its third stratigraphic well in the area.

I remind Shapwanale that there have been a lot of negative media reports about communities opposing the project. In fact, ReconAfrica’s project has been in the firing line of international environmental organisations ever since it started early-stage exploration drilling in January 2021, a time when Covid-19 tightened its grip on the world. Nonetheless, many of the local people that I spoke to during my stay in Rundu supported the project, although there were some that had concerns about the possible impacts.

I asked Shapwanale what it would it mean for the Kavango region and for Namibia as a country, if ReconAfrica does finds significant amounts of oil and gas?

“It will be fantastic if ReconAfrica made a large discovery. The people of Rundu and surrounding villages understand the benefits and are well-aware of the impacts the project could possibly have. In the end, it is up to the people of Kavango and the people of Namibia to decide.

Lifeline for a bustling town ( Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?) 

Rundu is a bustling African town. I know it’s a cliché when referring to African cities or large towns. But there’s no better adjective to describe Rundu, especially after travelling for 22 days through the sparsely populated thirst lands of the Namib desert.

Rundu has always been a gathering place for a diversity of people long before it was declared the capital of the Kavango region in 1936, or before European countries arbitrarily drew Africa’s borders at the Berlin conference in 1885. The inhabitants of what is today known as Angola, Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana were attracted to the area by the lifegiving water of the Kavango River, which snakes through Angola and Namibia before it spreads out and ultimately vanishes in the thick sand of Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

The Kavango region’s soil is fertile, and subsistence and small-scale farming, as well as fishing, have been the backbone of the local economy for thousands of years. However, the Kavango people, and inhabitants of Rundu and surrounding villages, are running out of land. The further people move away from the Kavango River, the harder it becomes to access fresh water sources. Moreover, Covid-19 and its lockdowns has taken its toll on the health system and the economy of a rural town bursting out of its seams.

Other than fishing, farming, and trading, there is not much else to do in Rundu, especially for young people. With unemployment at record high levels, the youth of Rundu and its surrounding villages are restless. There might be a lifeline though. But the jury is out whether the solution will be a blessing or a curse. Could oil and gas be Rundu’s saviour?

 The company had to fend off a court application by a third party that challenged recent amendments to ReconAfrica’s Environmental Compliance Certificate. The amendments were approved by the Environmental Commissioner of the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism.

The third party requested an order from the court for an interim interdict to restrain ReconAfrica from continuing any oil and gas exploration activities. This episode once again proved the controversy of the oil and gas project, even if it is only in a very early exploration stage.

Early in August, the court dismissed the application for the interim interdict and ordered that the applicants pay all legal costs.  ReconAfrica then announced that it has received a three-year extension to its Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC), from the Office of the Environmental Commissioner, Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism of the Republic of Namibia, covering the entire PEL 73 permit, which covers over 6.3 million acres (25,000 km2), in northeast Namibia.

According to Scott Evans, CEO of ReconAfrica, the ECC authorises the company to continue drilling stratigraphic test wells, to depths as well as completing a side-track of the company’s first well, Kawe 6-2, in the Kavango Basin. The extended ECC has been approved by Ministry of Mines and Energy and National Petroleum Corporation of Namibia (NAMCOR) and is valid for three years from August 26 2022 until August 26 2025.

“The extension of the Environmental Clearance Certificate was underpinned by extensive on-the-ground and research-based data gathering by our technical teams working in combination with our third-party technical partners.

“The extension further demonstrates how ReconAfrica is working collaboratively with our interested and impacted stakeholders in Namibia including local and national government entities and representatives, as well as with the Traditional Authorities, as we pursue the commercial development of the Kavango Basin. The extension enables the company to plan and execute our current stratigraphic drilling and side-track programs,” says Evans.

Does benefits outweigh adverse effects? (Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?)

According to Minette Le Roux, Principal Environmental Specialist (EAP) at boutique South African law firm Nupen Staude de Vries, there will be social and economic benefits for Namibia and the Kavango Region if ReconAfrica’s project is commercially viable. “However,” she says, “these benefits may not be as sustainable as the socio-economic benefits derived from protecting wilderness areas, or developing an area for tourism, for example.”

Le Roux adds that possible negative impacts of a large-scale oil and gas project could include loss of natural vegetation, habitat fragmentation and noise and visual pollution.

Shapwanale says that all specialist impact studies have been carried out. “ReconAfrica is committed to minimal disturbance of habitat, in line with best international standards, and implement environmental and social best practices in all of its project areas,” she says.

“Managing community expectations is extremely important to us,” Shapwanale adds. “Stakeholder engagement is key in this project. It is important to mention all the impacts – negative and positive – of the project during our engagements. Most important though is that we need to emphasise that this project is still in the very early exploration stages,” she says.

Although there are strong indications that point towards an oil and gas find, it is extremely important to be aware that ReconAfrica’s project is in a very early exploration phase and that data is still being processed.

The fact that hydrocarbons are present in a petroleum basin, does not mean that the company has made a significant oil and gas discovery.

Moreover, if commercially viable oil is found, it will take at least another five to ten years before the well starts producing.

ReconAfrica’s project is controversial for several reasons. For one, hydrocarbons are not in fashion at the moment. Furthermore, this find is the first discovery of onshore oil and gas in Namibia, although the country’s offshore resources, and the onshore and offshore oil deposits of its northern neighbour Angola, is well known.

The project is in the Kavango Region which is associated with the Okavango Delta, a world heritage site. Although some concerns about the environmental and social impact are valid, there are a few points that must be made very clear and that have been misrepresented in media reports and by several activists.

Consider all facts and arguments (Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?)

The three wells were exploration drilling. Until a production licence is granted, only exploration drilling activities are currently taking place. Drilling activities are not in or near the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which has been reported in some media coverage. It is at least 180km from the start of what is known as the Panhandle where the Kavango River, which starts in Angola, splits into the three main channels at the villages of Sepopa/Etsha 6 and Seronga.

The project site is about 90km south of the Kavango River’s main channel which flows through Rundu and forms the border between Namibia and Angola. The Kavango River is not fed by underground acquirers as is the case with ephemeral rivers further south in the dry Namib desert.

The catchment area is in the Angolan highlands where the river starts as the Cubango before it becomes the Kavango in Namibia and Botswana. There are no river courses, dry river-beds or runoff channels anywhere close to ReconAfrica’s drilling sites.

There are so many other factors to consider before any person or organisation can outright condemn the drilling for hydrocarbons, but then again, as all extractive activities, it will have environmental and social impacts, which is being addressed and managed by a very competent and local ReconNamibia team.

In the end, it is not for me, any western government, foreign activists, or oil companies to decide the fate of this project or the fate of Namibia and its energy vision, and whether it should include oil and gas or not. The Namibian people and communities must decide without the intimidation and interference of unscrupulous agents of various organisations.

The communities of the Kavango Region are well aware of the benefits and of the potential negative impacts of the development. In the end, it will have to be these people that have to decide about their own future.

No matter what the outcome of ReconAfrica’s exploration drilling, a big oil and gas play in this part of the world will have ramifications for the entire southern Africa region. However, its most immediate impact will be felt in Rundu, located on the banks of the Kavango River, one of the most iconic rivers in Africa.

The Kavango River is 1700km and has its origins as the Kubango River south of Vila Nova on the Bié Plateau in Angola, at an elevation of 1780m. The river flows south and after encountering several rapids at Popa Falls on the Namibian side of the border, it enters Botswana and near a village called Sepopa, splits into three main channels as the elevation flattens and the mass of water gradually gets soaked up by the Kalahari sand of Botswana.

At the border between Namibia and Botswana the Mahango National Park provides protection for large herds of endangered Sable and Roan antelope, and small herds of roving elephants and buffalo. Further south, close to the villages of Etsa 6 and Sepopa, in Botswana, lies Tsodilo Hills, a small area of massive quartzite rock formations that rise from sand dunes to the east and a dry fossil lakebed to the west in the Kalahari Desert. These hills preserve one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world. Tsodilo Hills and the Okavango Delta are UNESCO World heritage sites, and both have enormous tourism potential.

Low impact tourism destination (Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?)

 The entire Okavango basin, in Botswana and Namibia, has for many years been a low impact tourism destination and a number of lodges, concentrated along the main riverbank and in the Delta proper, have provided the local Hambukushu, Bayei and the Banoka people with employment as guides or polers.

Polers are nature guides that take tourist out on Mokoro’s (traditional wooden canoes) into the channels of the Delta. Their salaries are meagre and their jobs seasonal, and they rely on gratuities.

Human-animal conflict across the Kavango region, is intense. When polers are not taking tourist into the delta on their mokoro’s, they subsistence farm or fish. If the rainfall permits these small-scale farmers plant sorghum, maize, watermelons, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. They eke out a living on land big enough only for a handful of goats and one or two cows.

Most rural people in Botswana and Namibia do not like elephants and lions. Although they know that these animals attract tourists and foreign currency, elephants also destroy their crops, irrigation systems and dams, while lions and leopard take their goats, cattle, and donkeys. This could leave them without food and milk for a full year, and if there are no tourists, like during Covid-19 lockdowns, they are dependent on the goodwill of neighbours or family members to survive.

Non-productive Mopani forests (Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?)

Apart from elephant, game numbers in this part of Namibia and Botswana are low. Away from the flood plains of the Kavango River the thick, clayish soil of the Kalahari is not fertile at all, and Mopani trees proliferate in the substrate. Mopani forests are not productive and do not attract grazers, although elephant, kudu and buffalo do browse on the leaves. The little patches of ground cover and grazing between these Mopani dominated areas, have been decimated through years of intense grazing by large numbers of feral goats and donkeys.

Non protected areas in the region, especially in Botswana, are severely overgrazed. Apart from the disastrous veterinary fences that the Botswana government erected in the 1960s (which cut off and altered historical migration routes of elephant, buffalo, zebra, and wildebeest, and killed tens of thousands of these animals), overgrazing and desertification are arguably the most damaging environmental and ecological calamities the region has ever experienced.

It is a man-made natural disaster that is hardly ever reported about, highlighted, or researched by the mainstream western media or environmental activists.

Oil exploration in the wake of Covid-19 (Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?)

It is against this background, and in this overly complex and intricate environment that ReconAfrica is conducting their conventional oil exploration program. There is no doubt that the impact of oil extraction in the region will be significant and long-lasting.

It could change the plight of local communities for the better, or it could become a disaster area like the Niger Delta in Nigeria. It is an extremely delicate balancing act to choose between development, conservation, and tourism. Despite its inspiring natural beauty and abundance of wildlife, local communities in and around the Okavango Delta and along the banks of the Kavango River, are extremely poor, and their fight for survival will be made worse by climate change.

It is highly unlikely that a great oil discovery will alter their trajectory, just as it is highly unlikely that preserving the Delta and its natural wonders will significantly improve their daily grind. It has not for the last 200 years. The development of mass tourism will have significant environmental impacts on a sensitive and fragile ecosystem, just as any other substantial development will. In fact, the development of oil fields, if not managed correctly, could have a destructive impact on the people and the ecology.

The development and extraction of minerals, oil, and gas close to or within protected areas or national parks located in poor regions of Africa, will multiply in the future. Development and conservation can co-exist, but pragmatism is needed to find a balance and to make the right decisions. Let us hope that the Namibian (and the Botswana authorities, for that matter) are pragmatists.

Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in the extraction and responsible utilisation of natural resources, the primary sector of African economies and Africa’s political economy. 

WhyAfrica reports about, and publishes newsletters, magazines and research reports about natural resources and the primary sectors of African economies, and the infrastructure, equipment and engineering methods needed to extract and utilise these resources in an efficient, responsible, sustainable, ethic and environmentally friendly way, so that it will benefit the people of Africa.

Furthermore, WhyAfrica promotes Africa as an investment and travel destination, analyses the continent’s business environment and investment opportunities, and reports on how the political economy of African countries affects its development.         

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message. WhyAfrica launched its first ever digital magazine in November 2021.

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Oil in the Kavango: blessing or curse?

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