The Delta in August - still lots of water

On paper, the planning process for the Okavango Delta Managment Plan appears to be an inclusive, thoughtful, successful process.

The Okavango River is one of the world’s largest inland water systems. The river begins in Angola, flows through the Caprivi Strip in northeastern Namibia, and culminates in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The coverage area fluctuates from approximately 5,400 square miles during low water flow to approximately 9,600 square miles during peak flooding (, 2010). Botswana has approximately 2 million inhabitants and has been labeled an “African Success Story” for its stable government and increasing GDP since independence in 1966. The Delta is a major component of Botswana’s multi-million dollar tourism industry.

Five distinct ethnic groups, each with its own language and customs, inhabit the area. However, the Delta is dominated politically by the Tswana, who live only in small numbers on the fringes of the Delta but are the dominant tribe in Botswana and control the government (, 2010).

To address the increasing pressure on the environment and biodiversity of the Delta by the growing tourism industry and the needs of its residents (including fishing and farming), the government of Botswana undertook a comprehensive planning process which would culminate in the Okavango Delta Management Plan (ODMP). The overall goal of the ODMP is to “integrate resource management for the Okavango Delta that will ensure its long-term conservation and that will provide benefits for the present and future well being of the people, through sustainable use of its natural resources” (Government of Botswana, 2008).

On paper, the planning process for the ODMP appears to be an inclusive, thoughtful, successful process. Because transportation consists of walking, poling a canoe, or hitchhiking for many residents of the Delta, the government brought the meetings to the people and convened dozens of public outreach meetings in villages across the Delta. Translators for the local languages were provided. Public comments were recorded. 

Yet, as in planning processes in the United States, there is a deeper story of power issues and how this affected not only the process but also the end result.

As noted by Dukes (1996), to move beyond power, interests, and rights, the I of self-interest must be transformed into the we of common welfare. To achieve this, he offers the vehicle of “relatedness.” This concept embodies the qualities of recognition, respect, and responsibility, specifically “a sense of responsibility for one’s actions; a sense of obligation to those who are dependent. . .a respect for the tradition’s of one’s own and others’ cultures. . .” (Dukes, 1996, p. 169). In the case of the ODMP, the process was set by the government, and thus the majority Tswana tribe. Though the government espouses the ethic that “we’re all Batswana” (residents of Botswana) and tries to blur the lines, in truth intertribal relationships – and thus power relationships – are complicated. All goes well as long as all go along with the Tswana. This included the ODMP planning process and document.

I learned the inside story when I met a planner in Namibia who had lived and worked in Botswana for many years. The outreach process was based around a Tswana community meeting process led by chiefs called kgotla. Because it wasn’t an indigenous process, the government brought Tswana chiefs to the Delta to run the meetings, effectively shutting down the local residents of different tribes. Despite the extensive outreach process, the resulting ODMP reinforced official views and policies, which supported both local and national power and money brokers.

Seen through the lens of Dukes, there is no true we in this process. One can argue that recognition of, respect for, and responsibility to the groups who live in the Delta are missing as well.

In American vernacular, the fix is in.

The lesson is easy – to be truly representative, the planning process must involve affected communities in the design of the planning process and must not only listen but also incorporate the input of the local community. Yet, this view assumes a government interested in the views and needs of local communities. So what does a community do when it appears the government isn’t interested in its view?

I don’t have an answer. Literature suggests many ways to go about this – alliances, protests, circumventing power structures – that, in all honesty, are oriented to those with money and/or time and assume (1) free time, (2) financial ability, and (3) some political savvy. It is, at heart, a first-world, white, privileged perception. For many in the developing world, this is a stretch. But Dukes’ words run true. We must begin with respect, responsibility, and recognition.
Works Cited
Dukes, E. Franklin. 1996. Chapter 11 “The practical foundations of a transformative process” pp. 156-171. In Resolving public conflict: transforming community and governance.

Government of Botswana, Department of Environmental Affairs. January 2008. Okavango Delta Management Plan. 2010. About.

— misty schymtzik