National Geographic: Oil company exploring in sensitive elephant habitat accused of ignoring community concerns

Namibians allege ReconAfrica disposed of wastewater unsafely, without permits, and ignored concerns about potential impact of oil drilling on water and wildlife.



ReconAfrica, a Canadian company exploring for oil and gas in Namibia upstream of a world-famous UNESCO World Heritage site that’s home to elephants and other wildlife is disposing of wastewater without permits, according to a government minister. The company is also ignoring local concerns about the impact of exploration and drilling on water supplies, homes, and animals, according to interviews and official comments submitted by members of the public.

There was scant public awareness of ReconAfrica’s plans to search for oil in this region of more than 200,000 people before National Geographic began reporting last October on the risks drilling could pose to water and wildlife.

The company’s 13,200 square-mile license area—about 70 percent of that in Namibia and the rest in Botswana—encompasses part of the vital watershed of the Okavango Delta. One of the largest inland deltas in the world, this fragile, 7,000-square-mile desert wetland lies in northwestern Botswana about 160 miles southeast of ReconAfrica’s first test well. It attracts some 100,000 tourists to high-end lodges each year and holds such a spectacular diversity of wildlife and plants that in 2014 UNESCO added it to its list of World Heritage sites. The delta is home to lions, giraffes, antelopes, wild dogs, martial eagles. Botswana’s 130,000 endangered savanna elephants—Africa’s largest remaining population—roam its lush islands, where they depend on the 2.5 trillion gallons of water that flow in each year from the north and west.

ReconAfrica’s drilling areas also overlap with the continent’s largest multicountry conservation park—the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), which includes land in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—and six locally managed wildlife reserves in Namibia.

The threat from oil and gas drilling to one of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems “boggles the mind,” Willem Odendaal told National Geographic last year. Odendaal is the former land, environment, and development project coordinator at Namibia’s Legal Assistance Centre, a public interest law firm based in the capital, Windhoek. The roads, pipelines, and construction that come with oil and gas extraction could “negatively affect important animal habitat, migratory pathways, and biodiversity,” according to the World Wildlife Fund. And wringing oil from rocks deep underground requires massive quantities of water, which is already scarce in the region. ReconAfrica’s license area abuts the main river that feeds the Okavango Delta for some 170 miles. Few other water sources are available for people and wildlife during the long dry season in this parched land.

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