Africa’s carbon gigabomb

Africa’s carbon gigabomb

The southern African country of Namibia is a land of extremes.

While it’s home to the world’s oldest desert – the Namib – which gives the nation its name, and has a 1,300 mile (2,000km) coastline with the Atlantic ocean, it also has the humid, sub-tropical region of the Kavango-Caprivi Strip in the northeast.

This stretches into the middle of the African continent and is a haven for some of the world’s most precious wildlife, flora, and fauna, and hundreds of species of bird.

So, it was perhaps unsurprising that ambitious plans to drill for oil in the region would trigger massive alarm bells, particularly among environmentalists who fear any intervention in a region of such important biodiversity.

The oil drilling plans – as outlined by the Canadian company, Reconnaissance Energy Africa (also known as ReconAfrica) – sound like an irresistible opportunity that would utterly transform Namibia and the lives of its population and make it one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The company has issued a number of promotional videos which proclaim its belief that Namibia and neighboring Botswana are sitting on a veritable pot of black gold – a hidden oilfield that the company insists could be one of the largest in the world.

Jay Park, the company chairman, is filmed in the videos saying: “We expect to confirm the existence of a working hydrocarbon system… the sky’s the limit for this company when we do that.”

And Bill Cathey, the chief geoscientist of Earthfield Technology who has been described as the “geological interpreter to the supergiants” – is seen saying: “We have analyzed data from virtually every sedimentary basin around the world. We have never seen a sedimentary basin with this depth or this size that hasn’t produced vast accounts of hydrocarbon.”

The company, in short, appears convinced it’s only a matter of time before they strike ‘oil gold’ and confirm its beliefs.

If they are correct, it would be one of the world’s largest and last ever onshore oil discoveries  – and the company has bought up the government licenses to conduct exploratory drilling in 35,000 square kilometers across both Namibia and Botswana.

But, if these suspicions are confirmed, the oilfields lie beneath a wilderness that is among the most beautiful and natural on the planet.

The map of where the company believes the oil to be is based partly on a high-resolution geomagnetic survey of the untested Kavango Basin.

The basin is a large lowland area covering most of Botswana and Namibia but also going into Angola, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

According to the company’s conclusions, there could be up to 120 billion barrels of crude oil lying beneath an area roughly the size of Belgium.

And as the world slowly moves away from its dependency on fossil fuels, many are wondering about the potential consequences of opening up such a vast new oil field.

Some environmental groups believe that, if it were to be exploited, such a discovery could destroy attempts at limiting global heating to 1.5C, completely derailing The Paris Agreement on climate change.

Fridays For Future Windhoek, a local environmental group, has already dubbed the oilfield a “Carbon Gigabomb”, which, if the fuel extracted is used, it says could release up to 51.6 billion tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of one sixth of the world’s remaining carbon budget.

In a recent release, it claims: “A crude analysis across the potential 25-year life cycle of the project shows Namibia and Botswana combined entering the top ten countries by oil production: fourth after Saudi Arabia and before Iraq.”

The real environmental worry is that the rivers and watercourses of the Kavango Basin feed into the Okavango Delta in Botswana, two million hectares of breath-taking beauty, a highly complex ecosystem considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa and a World Heritage Site.

Every year, around 11 billion litres of water flow into the delta.

Surrounded by deserts, it is one of the planet’s great oases, home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including Africa’s best-known safari animals such as lions, leopards, rhinoceros, and buffalo.

Its diverse landscapes also sustain over 1,000 different types of plants, close to 500 species of birds as well as numerous reptiles, fish, and mammals. 

Because of its vast size and difficult access, the delta has never been subject to significant development and it remains in an almost pristine condition.

The company’s theoretical projection of the oilfield encompasses one of the most important migration routes of the world’s largest remaining population of African elephants.

Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990 and has enjoyed political stability envied around Africa ever since.

It has a high literacy rate for most males and females (more than 90%) and although nearly 50% of the country is agricultural, it has a rich mining history, with diamonds, copper, gold, and silver among its natural resources.

But its semi-arid climate means it’s heavily dependent on its water sources and after recently emerging from a seven-year-long devastating drought, its population is highly aware of how crucial its rivers are.

It’s also the first country in the world to incorporate protecting the environment into its constitution and about 14% of its land is protected. So, the concerns over how one of Africa’s natural treasures would be impacted if oil is discovered are widespread.

Although the current exploration activities are of no immediate threat to the neighboring Okavango Delta itself, the real worries lay in the future.

If, as ReconAfrica believes, a giant new oil field is found, that could mean potentially hundreds of new drill sites across the region and vast amounts of infrastructure being built to get the oil out – with roads, trucks, heavy machinery, and potentially even pipelines needing to be laid and refineries built to process the oil.

And even if the whole project were to be carried out in the most environmentally sensitive way possible, many say that there’s always room for accidents or even sabotage. With some pointing to the Niger Delta in Nigeria as a dire warning against drilling for oil in the Kavango region.

The Niger Delta is a place that has become a byword for environmental catastrophe, with, according to some estimates, 40 million liters of oil spilled into its waters every single year.

We managed to get extremely rare access to the Niger Delta in 2017 and became one of the few outsiders to see the devastation wrought on the area.

It’s become a place where air, land, and water are all seriously contaminated, and inequalities and lawlessness are rife in a place that should be spectacularly wealthy thanks to the huge quantities of oil it contains.

Instead, corruption and violence are rampant. When we were there, we saw with our own eyes the widespread pollution caused by oil stealing and the shocking and extensive contamination.

All the mangrove trees were soaked in black sticky oil; the few fish being pulled out of the water were coated in it; the fishermen couldn’t avoid being covered in oil every time they set out in their canoes; their boats were enveloped in it; the entire coastline was smeared in oil. All we could see was black with oil. The scene was utterly apocalyptic.

The consequences of oil extraction in the Niger Delta have also put local communities at heightened risk of diseases, and what was once one of the most diverse ecosystems in Africa has been practically destroyed.

Jofie Lamprecht, a safari lodge owner, told us how concerned he was that oil extraction could permanently affect the Kavango.

“It’s up to us to protect it and if we don’t, it will be gone,” he says. “Taint the water, you’ll taint all the wildlife.”

He is skeptical of the reassurances the company has issued about protecting the region.

“Any intervention of man in this area will change its wildness in any form.

“It will bring more people, more traffic, more pollution, more noise… and so the wildlife will be diminished… and the beauty and pure nature. That will be harmed in some way.”

The project has attracted some high-profile critics including Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who tweeted his disapproval.

#SavetheOkavangoDelta— Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio) February 11, 2021

Around 30 Anglican bishops and four archbishops have also signed a petition urging the Namibian government to halt its plans.

In response to concerns raised about the threat to the region’s waterways, ReconAfrica spokesperson Claire Preece told the South African Mail and Guardian the company had a water management plan that was focused on aquifer protection, surface water, and drainage management and there were “project no-go buffer zones” that “are implemented proactively”.

The possibility of oil drilling and what it would do to the region has filled many local people living and working in and around the Kavango Basin and Okavango Delta with utter horror.

A Sky team traveled to the drill site, near Rundu in the Namibian region of Kavango-East, to meet numerous villagers including one family headed by Andreas Mawano.

He now has a giant drill on land where he used to grow maize and feed his livestock.

He insists he was bequeathed the land by traditional leaders but now his collection of family huts is just a few hundred metres away from the drill.

We could see the drill pumping furiously a short distance from where one of the family was pummelling maize kernels.

“I’m powerless,” Andreas told us. “I cannot do anything. I don’t have money to employ a lawyer to take on this oil company.”

As we sat in his modest stick hut, it was obvious how little the family had.

A pile of leaves sat in the corner as we all gathered round a wood fire.

“This is all we have for food,” Andreas told us. “If a company is going to move in here, why can’t we benefit from any discovery too?”

Along with many other villagers who we met, he felt there had been little consultation or discussion about the plans.

Maria Mkunguru, who lives nearby, told us: “We grow these vegetables in this ground.

“If our ground is destroyed how will we sow again? Will the soil still be able to grow these vegetables if they find oil?”

Another, Martin Elias, said: “We are worried because we don’t know the effect of that oil on our environment. We are afraid of what it will do.”

Several others also told us of their concerns about how the drilling might contaminate their groundwater supply.

ReconAfrica had set up some nearby water pumps to ease the difficulties in collecting freshwater, but judging by the sentiment of the villagers we spoke to, they had not been placated by the platitudes coming from the company about how they will respect the environment and the community’s land rights.

When Sky News contacted ReconAfrica, the company insisted it had gone beyond what was required of them under Namibian government law in consulting the locals.

The company said: “ReconAfrica completed numerous consultation sessions directly in the communities. Specifically, major public awareness on seismic data acquisition was conducted in East and West Kavango and in Windhoek, which is not the norm for oil and gas or mining companies.

“Numerous community meetings took place throughout the region, and comments and input were extended beyond the initial deadline to allow more time for input from registered stakeholders. This has gone above and beyond any consultation requirements by the Namibian government.”

The company did not say exactly how many consultation meetings it had conducted, but locals told us they were aware of only three. They told us meetings were conducted in English, a language many locals do not speak, and the number who could attend the meetings was heavily limited because of pandemic restrictions which meant no more than 50 people could gather.

One community leader, Max Muyemburuko, said at one consultation meeting he attended only nine locals were present. The rest of the gathering was made up of ReconAfrica representatives, lawyers, and media.

He has been very vocal about his anxiety over the project and told us: “My feeling is that these people are not being considered as human beings… because their human rights are not being considered… They (the company) are treating them like they are not human beings.”

He described it as a David and Goliath battle in which poor Namibian people were taking on a relative oil company giant with big legal resources.

When we put Andreas Mawano’s concerns over land rights and farming to the company, it responded: “ReconAfrica has been cognisant throughout and respectful of Namibia’s land laws, and has been working closely with the Namibia government and traditional authorities to be very precise on land use. We are aware of Mr. Mawano’s concerns and are in the process of trying to directly address these with him.”

The company did not spell out exactly how it was resolving Mr. Mawano’s complaints.

Certainly, there are some diverse views within the community.

The area’s traditional leader accused us of not understanding just how the company could transform the lives of the poverty-stricken villagers living around it.

Johannes Kangoro, the village headman, said: “You educated people who already have comfortable lives, you want to restrict development here… that means we will stay poor and probably die poor.”

He was convinced any oil discovery would be positive for the area – and the country.

“Namibia has a history of mining. It knows how to do it,” he said.

The possibility that any extraction of oil or gas would involve hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ as it’s usually known, has been much vaunted as a major concern.

It’s a highly controversial method of hydrocarbon extraction that environmentalists believe leads to water contamination and soil destruction.

The Namibian government is playing down any potential risks of the project. Minister for environment Pohamba Shifeta, speaking in his country’s parliament, emphasized it was just permission for exploratory drilling.

“It is therefore clearly not a clearance for the company to go ahead with the fracking method,” he told his fellow parliamentarians.

The company has also highlighted on its website a report on the Namibian government-owned news site New Era that “no such license is being considered” for fracking.

Despite this, the worries over what the company will discover – and how it will affect one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet – refuse to go away.


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