Climate Change and Conflict By Norbert Halmer  |  12 May, 2021

Oil Discoveries in the Kalahari Threaten Natural Heritage, Social Peace and World Climate

Image: Richard Toller/Flickr

After initial test drilling in northern Namibia since the beginning of the year, the Canadian gas and oil exploration company Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica) announced on 15 April 2021 that analyses of the drilling samples had provided evidence of the existence of a "functioning petroleum system".

ReconAfrica suspects that the Kavango Basin is one of the world's largest oil deposits. Unnoticed by the public, the company had been preparing the oil search for years and, through quiet negotiations with the authorities of Namibia and Botswana, had secured the drilling licence in a prospecting area the size of Taiwan within the transnational KAZA Park.   

In the autumn of 2020, articles by Jeffrey Barbee in the National Geographic and the Daily Maverick first drew attention to the group's activities and the potential threat they pose to the Okavango ecosystem. Despite this wake-up call, it took weeks for resistance to form. Nature and climate protection activists as well as representatives of the local population and the tourism sector organised high-profile protests and petitions, supported by international NGOs.

As one of the most species-rich and sensitive ecosystems in Africa, the inland delta of the Okavango is a World Heritage Site. For the dry Kalahari region, the Okavango river system is the crucial lifeline. Until now, the concerns about this life-giving wetland have been focused on the expanding agricultural economy and climate change. In the last decade, the annual rainfall has remained below average, so the annual flood wave of the Okavango no longer reaches all areas of the delta and large parts of the fertile landscape have fallen dry.

A completely new kind of threat has emerged with the planned oil exploration. The prospecting area stretches for more than 200 km along the Kavango River and reaches to within a few kilometres of the Okavango inland delta. The company lures investors with photos of a petro-industrial landscape in the USA, reshaped by hundreds of fracking plots, and with grandiose promises of profits from the future exploitation of fossil deposits through the massive use of conventional as well as unconventional extraction methods - the latter a euphemism for ecologically highly controversial fracking.

The oil wells and pumping stations, reaching a depth of 4000 m, are associated with an enormously high consumption of water - in a region which suffers from water scarcity. The wastewater, enriched with toxic compounds, requires safe disposal, which is already not guaranteed in the test drillings. Pollution of the Kavango or the little-explored groundwater bodies extending far beyond the prospecting area would have dramatic consequences for the drinking water supply and agriculture of the entire region. Particularly high risks would be associated with the fracking method.

The project would lead to lasting disruption of migration and grazing routes of wildlife, especially of world's largest elephant populations. There would also be negative consequences for the development of tourism in this poverty-stricken region and for those employed in this sector. While ReconAfrica promises jobs and higher living standards for the local population, the oil extraction industry requires low numbers of well-trained skilled workers rather than unskilled labour.

The Khoi-San are particularly hard hit. Their history as descendants of the indigenous people of southern Africa has been marked by displacement and resettlement since colonial times. They live on communal land in the Kalahari and the contractual designation of oil production areas continues their painful experience of foreign domination over their land. In contradiction to the globally prevailing dualistic worldview, which is oriented towards "valorisation" and exploitation of nature, the San have a deep spiritual connection to their land.

In the run-up to the contracts, company representatives had won the approval of community representatives under non-transparent circumstances. Unrest and resistance among the Khoi-San population, as well as objections from UNESCO, have led the government of Botswana to enter into talks with tribal leaders and to exclude the Tsodilo Hills from the prospecting area. The Tsodilo Hills, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 4000 rock paintings, some over 20,000 years old, is a place of worship sacred to the San.

ReconAfrica officials and government agencies are becoming  increasingly nervous about the growing criticism. While the company felt compelled to hold public hearings after the fact, which were rather confrontational, Namibia's Environment Minister Shifeta and President Geingob demanded an end to the discussions because they were damaging the country's reputation.

A lack of willingness to talk and to provide information has damaged ReconAfrica's credibility. Contrary to its own announcements and a media statement by the Namibian Ministry of Mines and Energy that only conventional oil development is planned, the company still refuses to declare its unconditional renunciation of fracking. The company had the legally required EIA environmental report prepared by a subcontractor only after the licence had been granted. Environmental experts claim that the report is biased and superficial, as it refers only to the first phase of the test drilling and in no way meets the requirements of a comprehensive risk assessment study, which would have to look at the entire project of planned oil production.

Economists fundamentally question whether both countries will ever be able to make good use of the oil produced, as they do not have refineries, pipelines or loading ports. Experience from other countries shows that oil booms tend to benefit powerful individuals and foreign companies, while the environmental costs incurred have to be borne by local communities and taxpayers. By granting the licence for 25 years, ReconAfrica has, in neo-colonialist fashion, secured a profit share of 100 percent in Botswana and 90 percent in Namibia, with the remaining 10 percent going to the state-owned oil company NAMCOR.

In a world that, in the face of climate change, will inevitably have to orient itself towards the post-fossil age, petroleum and petrochemical plants will, in the long run, significantly lose profitability and thus also their attraction for investors through the inclusion of CO² costs. The re-entry of the USA into the international alliance against global warming increases the headwinds against the ReconAfrica project. At the Leaders’ Summit on Climate on 22 April 2021, US-President Biden strongly supported the Mega Solar project to build one of the world's largest solar parks, being pushed by USAID's Power Africa initiative in cooperation with Namibia and Botswana. As future major solar power producers and exporters, the two countries could then supply the southern African region with renewable energy and make an important contribution to global efforts to combat climate change. The organisation Fridays For Future used the day of Biden's virtual climate summit to call on the G7 to take action against ReconAfrica's project and to remind Namibia of its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 92 percent by 2030.

Pressure from the local population and the international community must grow so that the governments of Namibia and Botswana rethink and drop the outdated ReconAfrica project in favour of a better future for people and nature.

Norbert Halmer is a retired teacher, private scholar and lecturer. He studied geography, geology and climatology. He has taken study tours to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, most recently in 2019.