The Okavango Delta: Botswana’s Economic Saviour 

The current traded value of carbon is forecast to reach $150.00 per ton by 2030. This would provide an income to Botswana of a staggering $127 billion per year from the Okavango Delta, writes DOUGLAS RASBASH

World Wetlands Day is celebrated each year on 2nd February to raise awareness on the crucial role that wetlands play in the lives of people and the planet. This day also marks the anniversary of the Convention on Wetlands, which was adopted as an international treaty in 1971.

On 30 August 2021, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 75/317 that established 2nd February as World Wetlands Day. This year’s theme, “Wetland and Wellbeing,” underscores how all aspects of human wellbeing are tied to the health of the world’s wetlands. It calls on each of us to value and become stewards of our wetlands.

The Botswana Climate Change Network hosted a webinar that was attended by over 40 environmentalists to listen to and discuss related issues with distinguished experts, Tshenolo Chaba MSc, Prof. Dr Wame Hambira, Melusi Chakalisa, Maduo Mpolokang, Bonang Mohubu and Boitumelo Marumo.

At the webinar, this issue of the value of the Okavango Delta as a carbon sink was raised and inspired this feature. The Okavango Delta is our famous wetland covering an area of approximately 16,000 square kilometres. But apart from tourism and fishing, how can Delta become our economic saviour?

This feature explores all the benefits of our precious Delta, especially focusing on a new one, that of carbon sequestration. A study by the Conservation Fund of the University of Texas found that wetlands store 81 to 216 metric tons of carbon per acre, depending on their type and location. This means that the Delta can sequester approximately 853 million tons of CO2, assuming the highest rate of wetland sequestration and 247 acres per Sqkm.

The value of global carbon markets reached a record of $909 billion in 2023, and Botswana does not get a cent. The current traded value of carbon is forecast to reach $150.00 per ton by 2030. This would provide an income to Botswana of a staggering $127 billion per year. The future economy of Botswana lies not in removing carbon – diamonds and coal –  but in sinking it back into the ground. Yet the author has not come across anything being done by the government to enter the carbon offset market.

Environmental Benefits 

It is worth listing some of the other benefits of wetlands. Wetlands act as natural sponges, absorbing and slowly releasing water, thereby reducing the risk of floods and providing a stable water supply during dry periods. Wetlands are biodiversity hotspots, hosting a wide variety of plant and animal species, contributing to overall ecosystem health and resilience.

Many wetlands serve as essential breeding grounds for fish, supporting fisheries and maintaining aquatic biodiversity. Wetlands filter and purify water by trapping sediments and pollutants, improving water quality downstream. Wetland vegetation helps stabilise soil, preventing erosion and maintaining the integrity of adjacent landscapes. Wetlands contribute to groundwater recharge by allowing water to percolate into the soil, replenishing aquifers.

The biodiversity and adaptability of wetland ecosystems enhance overall ecological resilience in the face of climate change, promoting stability in the broader environment. Wetlands act as natural air purifiers, filtering pollutants and contributing to improved air quality in their vicinity.

Wellness and Tourism 

Wetlands provide serene and scenic environments for recreational activities like bird watching, hiking, and nature walks, promoting mental well-being. The natural beauty of wetlands contributes to aesthetic enjoyment, fostering a sense of tranquillity and connection to nature.

Stress Reduction: Spending time in wetland areas has been linked to stress reduction and improved mental health, thanks to the calming effects of nature. Activities such as walking or cycling in wetland areas offer opportunities for physical exercise, contributing to overall fitness. Wetlands serve as living classrooms, offering educational experiences that enhance environmental awareness and a sense of stewardship.

Nature therapy, or ecotherapy, often involves outdoor activities in natural settings like wetlands, promoting emotional well-being. Interacting with diverse plant and animal species in wetlands fosters a sense of connection to the natural world, promoting mental wellness. Wetland areas often become focal points for community gatherings, fostering social connections and a sense of belonging. Many wetlands hold spiritual or cultural value for local communities, providing a sense of identity and connection to the land.

Nature has therapeutic qualities, and spending time in wetlands may have positive effects on mental health, promoting relaxation and mindfulness. Exposure to nature, including wetlands, has been linked to improved cognitive function, attention and creativity. Spending time outdoors in wetlands allows for exposure to sunlight, aiding in the production of vitamin D, which is essential for bone health and overall well-being.

Being in wetlands exposes individuals to diverse plant and animal life, fostering a sense of connection to the environment and promoting overall wellness. Natural wetland settings can evoke positive emotions, contributing to emotional restoration and a sense of calm.

Educational Opportunities: Learning about the unique ecosystems and biodiversity of wetlands can stimulate intellectual curiosity, supporting ongoing personal development and wellness.

But we should return to the main issue, of exploiting the carbon sequestration capacity of the Okavango Delta. Quantifying the exact amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestered by the Okavango Delta is challenging due to various factors like changing environmental conditions, vegetation types, and measurement complexities. However, wetlands, including the Okavango Delta, are known to be significant carbon sinks. A study published in the journal Nature Communications in 2020 estimated that African wetlands, including the Okavango Delta, sequester carbon at a rate of about 1.21 pentagrams (1 pentagram = 1 billion metric tons) of carbon per year.

Your digital paper has estimated that the Okavango would sink 853 million tons of CO2, given the most optimistic estimate and that will be worth $127 billion per year as stated at the beginning. But all that might be jeopardised if the Okavango dried up due to global warming or oil pollution, should the current and misguided attempt to convert the Okavango Basin into an oil field be realised.

Saving the planet will have a higher value than killing it off. The government understands the tourism value of the Okavango Delta but not its much higher value of being the lungs of the planet. It is time that they did.