Protests block Botswanan dam

April 10, 1991

By Norm Dixon

The Botswanan government has suspended the dredging of the Okavango River delta in response to mounting local and international opposition. The announcement has brought a temporary halt to a giant scheme that would severely damage one of southern Africa's last virgin wildernesses.

Late last year Botswana's conservationists called on the Australian green movement to intervene to help save the Okavango because of the central role being played in the development by the Australian government-owned Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation. The SMEC, hired as consultants, drew up the plan to dredge the lower reaches of the river system, dam the Boteti and Nhabe rivers and build a canal to drain water. The SMEC was awarded the contract to manage construction. The scheme was scheduled to begin in January.

The main beneficiary is the South African diamond monopoly De Beers, which plans to use the diverted water for its Orapa mine. This clearly breaches the spirit of Australia's (increasingly shaky) policy of maintaining economic sanctions against South Africa.

Botswanan minister for mineral resources and water affairs Archibald Mogwe reluctantly announced the suspension after meeting with the villagers of Maun, who according to the government, the SMEC and De Beers are supposed to benefit from the scheme. They told the minister that they did not need or want the project and that it should be stopped immediately. He rushed back to the capital, Gaborone, to report to President Quett Masire, who apparently decided a temporary suspension was in order.

Asked whether the government would scrap the project completely, Mogwe said the government could not just stop the scheme because a few people had expressed displeasure. He suggested that the villagers were either ignorant or manipulated by "outsiders".

Diamonds are now Botswana's main export product, and the government is desperate to maintain this important source of income. Botswanan conservationists accept the need to take water from the Okavango, but say a pipeline from rivers in the north is the least harmful option. The government argues that this would be too expensive.

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