The Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission (OKACOM) Council has agreed that an approved Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report should precede any subsequent stages of ReconAfrica’s exploration work. The council, which recently convened to discuss the oil and gas exploration activities of the Canadian-based company, noted that if found at any stage that there is a significant threat to the integrity of the Cubango-Okavango River Basin (CORB) and the local communities, the process should be duly suspended.
The transboundary CORB is shared by Angola, Botswana and Namibia. These member states are represented by the OKACOM Council of Commissioners.
Mandated by the three member states to advise on the conservation, development and sustainable utilisation of water resources in the CORB, OKACOM organised the council meeting with ReconAfrica, specifically to discuss explorative activities in north-east Namibia and north-west of Botswana to determine the presence of oil and gas.
OKACOM noted that the three member states reported that a key objective and commitment is to ensure that ongoing and proposed prospecting activities are done outside of the core and buffer zones of delineated protected conservation areas as provided for in respective environmental legislations, and ReconAfrica will need to comply as indicated in their project plans.
ReconAfrica’s activities have not only resulted in national and regional concern, but has also attracted international attention with fears of adverse environmental impact on the basin, both in the short and long-term. Media reports have highlighted the concern of potentially affected stakeholders such as the communities living within the basin.
“Firstly, the commission recognises the legitimacy of Petroleum Exploration Licence PEL073 and PEL001 issued to ReconAfrica by the relevant authorities in both Namibia and Botswana respectively, 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. In advising member states on issues affecting the environmental integrity of the basin, the commission has to ensure that this status is sustained by member states individually and jointly through adhering to agreed key principles with regards to any major developments in the basin including these exploration activities,” read a statement from OKACOM.
Vision for the CORB
The CORB is internationally renowned for its significantly high biological productivity and iconic biodiversity, making it one of the most important biodiversity conservation areas in the world. Hence, its status as a Wetland of International Importance (a Ramsar site) and a 1000th World Heritage site under the UNESCO Convention. In light of this, the commission reaffirmed its commitment to uphold 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 of the Cubango-Okavango River Basin”.
Planned measures in the basin
In the recent statement, the OKACOM secretariat noted that in light of the current explorative activities taking place, the prevention of ‘significant harm’ and ‘significant adverse effects’ to co-riparian states has become a key management aim between all three member states.
In this regard, the basic principle requiring states not to permit the causing of significant harm to other riparian states is laid down in international conventions, in customary international law, in national legal regulations as well as in cooperation agreements of countries sharing river basins.
Thus, OKACOM expects each member state concerned to prepare and submit relevant information and notifications to other member states in the basin as soon as possible in line with the forgoing legislation and guidelines. The commission also wants the relevant ministers of the three countries to be involved and adequately briefed on the status of these initiatives for them to make the appropriate decisions.
The commission also agreed that stakeholder consultations, involvement and subsequent agreement should be a pre-requisite for any further work in relation to oil and gas exploration in the basin.
“Stakeholder consultation is key in safeguarding the participation and involvement of communities and other affected parties within the basin and should be documented and done transparently.”
The commission further committed to ensuring gains that have been achieved by the basin over more than 25 years of the tripartite’s existence are not reversed by activities that may negatively affect the wellbeing of the basin and its communities.
“As an advisory body to the three member states, OKACOM not only commits to ensuring that comprehensive monitoring of the process is undertaken, but will act in convening the necessary meetings and platforms for discussion and information sharing from member states.”