BaSarwa communities living in the Okavango Delta have voiced concerns about planned oil drilling activities in the area by a Canadian company.
Chief Kelebetse Keasheta of Tsodilo Village in the Okavango is among prominent people who have raised this concern, saying communities in the area were not consulted. “We should have been consulted to incorporate our views in the environmental impact assessment document,” he told the Business Weekly & Review in an interview. Kgosi Keasheta’s concerns were shared by BaSarwa activist Gakemotho Satau of Kuru Family of Organisations, which represents the interests of Basarwa.
He said no relevant public consultation has been conducted so far in Botswana and they are not sure yet what legal documents ReconAfrica has, authorizing it to begin drilling for their seismic survey. “We are not sure if they would be drilling or not,” Satau said. But ReconAfrica insists that its responsibility is to safeguard water sources and “we have incorporated it within our management practice, through regularly reporting on geohydrological data being collected with time”.
Satau emphasised absence of consultations. “The minister (responsible for minerals and energy) only came to Shakawe late last year to introduce ReconAfrica meeting to the village leadership (magosi and VDC members) in a closed-door meeting at which members of the public were not welcome. “Our colleagues were not allowed in when they wanted to participate,” said Satau. “To the best of our knowledge, no environmental authorisation is in place in Botswana, although a petroleum licence has been given to the company to explore in an area of 9 921km2 between the Okavango Delta here and the Namibian border.”
He added that no social impact assessment has been done either but discussions are ongoing to develop terms of reference for such an undertaking “because we deem it necessary”. The communities consider this matter so seriously that BaSarwa human rights groups such as Taneko and Khwedom Council have dispatched a delegation to Nigeria for benchmarking for community responses to such matters. “We are aware that the Niger Delta and the surrounding vegetation has not been immune from contamination resulting from oil spills in the watershed,” said Satau. “You will note that water from this type of work typically contains chemicals used in fracking and dissolved mineral salts from the rock and natural radioactive substances released from deep in the earth.”
Satau emphasised that this is a hazardous waste product that cannot be used for any purpose. “Mind you, the exact chemicals used in fracking are usually considered confidential business information and kept secret by the companies, making it difficult to know which hazards people may be facing,” he noted. “You will ask yourself if an EIA was aware of this before the licence was issued,” said Satau.
He warned that oil is dirty and contaminates surface and underground water and is “also a thirsty job that requires large volumes of water, space for processing, waste disposal, storage and pipelines”. He expressed that the area earmarked for exploration lies at the centre of cattle posts where communal farmers use underground water for drinking and farming purposes. “To the south are Tsodilo Hills, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” he explained. “We do not expect economic benefits from this oil development. We were told the company owns 100 percent shares.” He raised the matter of jobs being only in menial occupations because people in the community do not have qualifications in the oil industry. “We are talking about a few truck drivers and security guard personnel,” Satau said. “But what we can foresee as relative outsiders in our own land are consequences that are not environmentally-friendly, health hazards in the form of air pollution and pollution of underground water sources, as well as people being evicted from their land.”
He expressed gratitude for support from Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) for facilitating an awareness exercises in partnership with traditional community leaders, the Khwedon Council, Taneko and San Youth Network at various communities. The exercises were about conventional and unconventional oil and gas exploration, and the flora and fauna of the area.
ReconAfrica has said Tsodilo Hills, the Okavango Delta and all national parks are outside of its exploration licence. “As an additional measure, the project has set no-go buffer zones to protect the environment and wildlife that include a 10-km setback from the Okavango River and 20-km setbacks from the Okavango Delta,” the company said. “In Namibia, where exploratory drilling has commenced, ReconAfrica stratigraphic wells are located 260km and more from the Okavango Delta.”