The Okavango Delta in Botswana is a priceless wilderness but as with most natural areas on earth there are potential threats to its existence from human development and exploitation.
As with most wilderness areas on Earth the Okavango Delta has been the focus of attention for developers and farmers alike over the decades and numerous attempts have been made to tame the land. All attempts have failed and today the tourism industry has ensured the future of the Okavango from inside the country, although there are outside factors that could have a bearing on the future.
The fertile seasonal floodplains and permanent water have been a lure for the attentions of the powerful beef farming industry, but in the past the cattle have been kept out by the once deadly Tsetse fly. The fly has been eradicated from the Okavango but a fence that was erected to keep the wildlife coming into contact with cattle, and in so doing prevent the possible transmission of diseases, has kept the cattle out.
The early pioneers of change in the Okavango
Many early pioneers have attempted to alter the Delta for various purposes, with a scheme to drain parts of the delta to allow for agriculture, which was abandoned due to the failure of equipment and the difficulty in securing spare parts to fix machinery.
The Okavango has areas of vast papyrus beds which are virtually impenetrable and an ambitious scheme to clear the papyrus to allow for easier navigation failed when it was discovered how thick the beds were, and that papyrus generally floats, resulting in machines not being able to access the areas.
The sleeping sickness carrying Tsetse fly bred and thrived in the Okavango and the authorities embarked on an operation to eradicate the tsetse fly and by so doing rid the country of sleeping sickness. A number of harmful and ill-conceived methods were attempted, including shooting all hoofed animals, the hosts of the fly virus, and spraying the Delta from the air with the harmful toxin DDT.
None of these attempts to control the fly were successful, instead they did great harm to the ecology, and today a more environmentally friendly method is used which is proving to very successful.
Present threats to the Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta gets about a third of its water from local rainfall, with the rest coming from rains in the Angolan Highlands more than 100 km's away. This water is the lifeline of the Okavango and any stemming of the flow of the river before it reaches the Delta can have disastrous effects on the Delta itself.
The river flows through Namibia on its route to the Delta, a dry country in desperate need of alternative water supplies, and a few years ago the Namibian authorities set up a proposal to dam the Okavango River. A massive outcry followed and the plans were shelved but the threat is still there that the river may be dammed somewhere along its course.
Tourism - threat or blessing
It can be said that tourism will ensure the future the Delta for generations as it is strictly controlled by the Botswana government but the chance always exists that over-development could damage the environment if left unchecked.