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ReconAfrica's plan to drill for oil in the Okavango draws the ire of environmentalists

  • Written by  Jacob Dykes
  • Published in Climate
Locals paddle mokoro canoes on the Okavango Delta Locals paddle mokoro canoes on the Okavango Delta SHUTTERSTOCK/ORIGINAL MO
09 Jun
One company’s plan to drill for oil in the Okavango Delta is raising the ire of environmentalists. As we find out, the promises of community uplift through oil extraction is not always a pathway to prosperity

In 2015, Canadian-based oil and gas exploration company ReconAfrica acquired the rights to explore about 8.5 million acres of the Kavango Basin in northeastern Namibia – one of the world’s great wilderness areas. Safe to say, this hasn’t gone down well with environmental groups. So far, however, their voices have gone largely unheeded. In January 2021, the company began to drill the first of two exploratory test wells, which will eventually be used to establish the region’s potential for oil production. The company has dubbed Africa the 'final frontier' for oil exploration. 

The Kavango Basin is one of Earth’s remaining cradles of biodiversity. Each year, 11 billion litres of water flow into the Okavango Delta from upstream Angola. This water fans out on a three-month journey across the Caprivi Strip, yielding a profusion of life that has given Botswana and Namibia international renown for wildlife tourism. The diverse landscapes sustained by the Okavango Delta are home to more than 1,000 plant and 500 bird species. It’s also a wetland paradise for mammals, home to the continent’s largest remaining elephant herds. The entire region is used by a number of migratory antelope species, which are followed by wild dogs, lions, leopards and cheetahs in an annual pursuit. It’s this wildlife cornucopia that led Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe to create the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), a 520,000 square kilometre transboundary project billed as the flagbearer of these nations’ ‘green economy vision’.

ReconAfrica’s licensed prospecting area overlaps with KAZA, six locally managed wildlife reserves and the Tsodilo Hills, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The drilling area abuts the main river that feeds the Okavango Delta for some 170 miles.

Wild dogsThe African wild dog is one of Africa’s most endangered carnivores - there are estimated to be fewer than 6,000 individuals left in the wild. Image: SHUTTERSTOCK/BRAM COLLINS


The main point of contention for environmental groups is that ReconAfrica’s environmental impact assessments have been conducted separately for each of the project’s phases, obfuscating the potential long-term impact. The company has been unwilling to discuss the environmental implications of the latter production phase of oil exploitation, which could potentially see hundreds of new drill sites set up across the region, with roads, pipelines and more infrastructural brawn to process the oil.

The concern is that providing environmental clearance for early exploration endorses larger operations if reserves are found. On that prospect, ReconAfrica is confident: ‘Nowhere in the world is there a sedimentary basin this deep that does not produce commercial hydrocarbons,’ Bill Cathey, ReconAfrica’s president, has said.

A recent National Geographic investigation shows that ReconAfrica’s test wells may already be leeching contamination. Under Namibian law, the company must ‘control the flow and prevent the waste, escape or spilling of petroleum, drilling fluid or any other substance from their [exploratory] well.’ It is common practice for waste reserves neighbouring test wells to be lined with an impermeable barrier. But a video posted on ReconAfrica’s website on January 10 shows no barrier. As such, environmentalists suspect that benzenes, ethylenes, and naturally-occurring radioactive products may have already begun seeping into the groundwater. It does not set a good precedent for the larger production phase of their operation.


The company has also been criticised for the way it has conducted community consultations, which started in March. Speaking with conservation news outlet Mongabay, Frowin Becker, a doctoral candidate from Victoria University of Wellington, said that one community consultation was highly technical, poorly presented and openly confrontational. In addition, meetings have been advertised primarily in English-language newspapers, which few in the affected communities can read. One community worker, Max Muyemburuko, added that a meeting he attended consisted of just nine locals, but tens of lawyers and industry media representatives. Concerns have also been raised by Indigenous groups. ‘The presence of the oil industry will mean the forceful enclosure of land, excluding us and preventing our free movement and that of animals, and resulting in our further displacement,’ said Q7 Beckett, a San youth leader, in a statement.

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wetlandsTwo hippos graze the lush vegetation of the Okavango Delta. Image: SHUTTERSTOCK/ONDREJ PROSICKY


An estimated 120 billion barrels of oil lie beneath ReconAfrica’s proposed exploration area. Namibian conservation group Fridays For Future Windhoek has dubbed this stock a ‘carbon gigabomb’ and says that if that volume of oil is found, extracted and utilised, the resulting emissions would equate to 51.6 billion tonnes of CO2.

For the Namibian government, however, it isn’t a simple matter. Such a huge oil find has the potential to boost the developing nation’s economy. Namibia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy said in a September 2020 press release: ‘The socioeconomic impacts of exploratory drilling will result in the employment of locals’, along with other benefits, such as new water wells for communities near the proposed drill sites and ‘humanitarian aid’ from wealthy oil companies. Johannes Kangoro, a headman from a village in the exploration area, told Sky News: ‘You educated people who already have comfortable lives, you want to restrict development here.’

This a question likely to be raised again and again as the world moves to decarbonise and one with which all countries will need to grapple. Why shouldn’t a developing country follow in the footsteps of developed nations and exploit what oil it has?

But as those who oppose further drilling point out, such exploitation isn’t necessarily a path to better economic health. The Niger Delta in Nigeria offers a glimpse of what can go wrong. In 1956, Shell opened up the first oil reserves in the region, promising local employment and community uplift. Sixty years on, Amnesty International estimates that 240,000 barrels of oil spill into the Niger Delta each year. Inky pools stand in place of biodiverse mangrove forests; fish populations have crashed; groundwater supplies have been contaminated; and the local disease burden has soared. Crude oil has acidified soil and reduced its fertility; the protein content of cassava has dropped by 40 per cent since oil arrived, leading to a 60 per cent decline in household food security, together with a 24 per cent increase in childhood malnutrition. Oil doesn’t always guarantee prosperity.

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