Canada’s ReconAfrica oil and gas exploration in Namibia and Botswana worries World Heritage Committee

Unesco’s World Heritage Committee is concerned about oil exploration licences being granted in environmentally sensitive areas in the Okavango river basin in northwestern Botswana and northeastern Namibia, because spills and pollution will  harm the Okavango Delta and the Tsodilo Hills.

The committee, which met for its extended 44th session last month, is responsible for making decisions about the implementation of the World Heritage Convention

Canadian-based oil and gas company ReconAfrica, has acquired rights to explore for oil and gas in more than 35 000 square kilometres in the Kavango basin in Namibia and Botswana. The company has started with the drilling of test wells in Namibia. 

The heritage committee urged Botswana and Namibia to ensure potential further steps to develop the oil project “are subject to rigorous and critical prior review, including a thorough environmental impact assessment [EIA] that corresponds to international standards”.

It said this must include an assessment of negative social effects and a review of potential harmful effects on the World Heritage property “in line with the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] … advice note on environmental assessment”. 

An analysis by the World Heritage Centre and the IUCN notes that while ReconAfrica’s licensed areas do not overlap with the property or its buffer zone, they are situated in environmentally sensitive areas of the Cubango-Okavango River Basin with a potential negative effect on the property and the areas important routes for elephants and other wildlife. 

“While the current activities … are not likely to have a significant direct impact on the property based on their restricted scope and location away from the property, this might be a first stage towards a larger project with significant risks to the interconnected water system of the delta and the outstanding universal value, in case reserves are found,” it said.

The IUCN and the World Heritage Centre identified “ gaps and concerns” with the EIA such as the need for a more detailed spatial distribution assessment of species and the need to ascertain the connectivity of ecosystems. 

It says any future activities, including exploration stages such as seismic research and drilling of stratigraphic wells, must be evaluated critically.

Melissa Lewis, the policy and advocacy programme manager for BirdLife South Africa, welcomed the World Heritage Centre’s efforts to monitor the project, but added: “However we are deeply concerned by various shortcomings in ReconAfrica’s EIAs to date — as identified by the World Heritage Centre and IUCN, as well as by BirdLife South Africa’s recent comments on the EIA for seismic surveys

“Over the years, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly called upon state parties to ensure that extractive companies located in their territories cause no damage to World Heritage properties, and numerous industry stakeholders have undertaken a ‘no-go’ commitment in this regard,” she said.

Although the project is only at the exploration stage, there is concern about the potential environmental effects of future extractive activities. 

“We strongly urge the Namibian and Botswana governments to fulfil their obligations under the convention by demanding that such impacts are properly assessed and by refusing to authorise any activities that would negatively impact the outstanding universal value of either the Okavango Delta or Tsodilo Hills World Heritage site,” Lewis said.

Andy Gheorghiu, of Saving Okavango’s Unique Life (Soul), an alliance of concerned Namibian, Batswana and Angolan citizens challenging ReconAfrica’s planned oil and gas drilling activities, welcomed the committee’s decision, which he said “corresponds with our core demands”.

ReconAfrica did not respond to queries from the Mail & Guardian but has previously said it was working directly with Unesco. The company claims it is committed to minimal disturbances in line with international best standards and will implement environmental and social best practices in all its project areas.

In a recent statement, the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission, which represents the riparian states of Angola, Botswana and Namibia, described how it had recently convened to discuss ReconAfrica’s exploration activities in the transboundary Cubango-Okavango river basin, shared by the three countries.

The commission says it recognises the legitimacy of the petroleum exploration licences issued to ReconAfrica by authorities in Namibia and Botswana, both of which are at varying stages. “Both governments, through the ministries responsible for mining and energy, have issued official statements stating that the explorative activities are well within environmentally safe boundaries and do not pose any harm to the basin.” 

The Cubango-Okavango basin is internationally renowned for its significantly high biological productivity and biodiversity, making it one of the most important biodiversity conservation areas in the world and giving it its status as a wetland of international importance.

The commission reaffirmed its commitment to upholding a shared vision for the basin, which states that all efforts will be employed to achieve an economically prosperous, socially just and environmentally healthy development.

Key to this is to ensure that ongoing and proposed prospecting activities are done outside of the core and buffer zones of the delineated protected conservation areas, it says.

“ReconAfrica will need to comply as indicated in their project plans. This is to be enforced through the respective ministries responsible for water and environment,” it said.

“The council agreed that an approved EIA report should precede any subsequent stages of the exploration work and if found at any stage that there is a threat to the integrity of the basin and the local communities, the process should be duly suspended.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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