Capitol Hill Expert Panel: Safely Realizing the Okavango Watershed’s Untapped Potential

March 14, 2018
Capitol Hill Expert Panel: Safely Realizing the Okavango Watershed’s Untapped Potential

Landmines remain a challenge to sustainable development and conservation in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, the Okavango watershed. On March 14th, ICCF hosted a panel of experts on Capitol Hill to discuss ways that Angola, home to the headwaters of this river system, can safely maximize the area’s natural potential.

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Angola's 27-year civil war left the country with more landmines than people. Today, these mines remain a challenge to sustainable development and conservation in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, the Okavango watershed. On March 14th, ICCF hosted a panel of experts on Capitol Hill to discuss ways that Angola, home to the headwaters of this river system, can safely maximize the area’s natural potential.

The Okavango watershed, Africa’s largest inland water system, is known to many because of the vast Okavango Delta in the northern region of Botswana. The delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to the largest remaining population of elephants in Africa and to a thriving ecotourism industry. Though itself a hotspot for biodiversity and a key region for economic development, the expansive Okavango Delta’s source waters are often overlooked.

The delta flows from a network of rivers whose headwaters can be found in the southeastern highlands of Angola. Until recently, few conservationists had accessed this region of Angola.

During Wednesday’s briefing on Capitol Hill, Amy Pokempner, Senior Program Manager for the National Geographic Society (NGS) Science and Exploration Program, presented findings from National Geographic’s Okavango Wilderness Project, its latest transect through southeastern Angola and the river system of the Okavango. The project, led by National Geographic Explorer, Dr. Steve Boyes, set out to trace the waters of the Okavango Delta to their source in the Angolan highlands. In doing so, Dr. Boyes and his team discovered several new species (pending peer approval), signs of animals new to the region like elephants and wild dogs, and a landscape full of potential.

One challenge to safely realizing that potential is minefields left over from years of conflict. However, Jose Agostinho, Deputy Program Manager for the Halo Trust in Angola, and his team are working to successfully clear the region of remaining mines.

“Two hundred twenty-three minefields affecting this area that we need to get rid of,” said Mr. Agostinho, “and it will be possible to clear the entire area, the entire problem.”

As landmines are cleared throughout the watershed, more studies like those done as part of the Okavango Wilderness Project can be safely conducted, more land can be safely utilized, and, as a result, communities and peoples can prosper. Areas cleared of mines grant access to new arable lands and grazing grounds for livestock and wildlife, allow rural communities to safely transport products to market in urban centers, and provide opportunities for conservation research and ecotourism development.

Greater access will enable conservationists to better understand the full extent to which the region can support elephant and other wildlife populations, knowledge with which Angola can enhance its capacity to manage these landscapes. Responsible management will, then, allow for the development of a sustainable ecotourism industry that can generate income for local communities. Beyond tourism, opening roads and further expanding safe lands will allow for greater development in communities and help the Okavango watershed region realize its true potential.

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