At the beginning of 2021, ReconAfrica, a Canadian oil and gas exploration company, started test drilling in the Kavango Basin of Namibia. By mid-April, the company had announced that their drilling samples showed promise of a “functioning petroleum system” . ReconAfrica had their exploration license approved by both Namibia and Botswana for the Kavango Basin . In total, the company has rights to explore over 8.5 million acres for oil . ReconAftica’s oil exploration license includes 11 separate community conservation areas and a UNESCO World Heritage site . The license area in Namibia puts more than 200,000 people at risk . This is a sequel to so many other fossil fuels projects in Africa, from the Karoo desert gas fracking, to the Cabo Delgado (Mozambique) LNG drama.
ReconAfrica wants to use the Kavango Basin for a large payday, as it suspects that it might hold one of the world’s last remaining large oil deposits . Negotiating with Namibia and Botswana, without public knowledge, ReconAfrica gained a drilling license in an area the size of Taiwan and within the transnational Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TCA) [8,9].
The Kavango Basin holds important water resources for the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and key habitat for multiple endangered species. The delta also provides water to the dry Kalahari region. Environmentalists are concerned that the oil development will affect aquifers and water balances in a biologically sensitive region near the Okavango Delta, one of the most famous wildlife conservancies in Africa [2, 3]. The Environmental Impact Assessment produced by ReconAfrica addresses none of these concerns, by not specifying the amount of water they plan to use or how wastewater from their operations would be treated and/or disposed of . ReconAfrica’s first drilling location is right along the banks of the Kavango river, inside the KAZA-TCA [10, 13], which puts the entire water system for the Okavango delta at risk. A second and third well are underway, but ReconAfrica’s ultimate goal is to drill hundreds of wells [2, 14].
In internal reports and investor materials, ReconAfrica discusses the use of “unconventional extraction methods,” a euphemism for fracking [8,9]. Fracking poses many risks, including the contamination of groundwater, which is especially important in this region. Namibia does not get much rainfall, and so is almost entirely dependent on groundwater . Fracking is also associated with massive consumption of water, making fracking in a water scarce area dangerous and irresponsible . Studies have also shown fracking to cause cancer and birth defects .
The San community lives on communal land in the Kalahri, within ReconAfrica’s contract area . The area is home to five tribal groups, many of whom have been discriminated against and lost land because of colonization . Tsodilo Hills, a UNESCO World Heritage site containing over 4000 rock paintings, some of which are over 20,000 years old, are also within the contract area . As a sacred site to the San, its inclusion in the contract area sparked resistance from the San, and UNESCO, leading Botswana to remove Tsodilo Hills from ReconAfrica’s license [8,12]. The resistance did not stop there, however, as San activists walked 300 miles from Knysna, South Africa to the Namibian diplomatic mission in Cape Town [2, 11]. They delivered an official petition vehemently opposing the prospecting for oil and gas in the Kavango basin . Another petition by Rainforest Rescue has gained more than 169,000 signatures [5, 15]. Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future Namibia and Botswana have organized online under the group Frack Free Namibia and Botswana with a campaign called #SavetheOkavangoDelta [5, 15].
Even famous environmentalists such as Leonardo Di Caprio and Josh Fox are supporting the campaign to keep the oil of the Kavango basin in the ground. Two United States senators, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), sent a letter to the US Secretary of State, Attorney General, and other top officials, asking them to investigate the oil and gas exploration in the Kavango basin to see if ReconAfrica had misled its investors . In October of 2020, the hacktivist organization, Anonymous, also staged an attack by taking down websites of multiple Namibian government ministries, including the president’s office, to protest the test drilling . A spokesmen from the group stated the attack was in protest to “greed and allowing the destruction of environment and wildlife” . Interestingly, the harm to local communities and people was not mentioned.
This project was unknown to the public until they saw drilling equipment rolling through their backyards, where some villages are now experiencing 24 hours of loud drilling . Ina-Maria Shikongo, the founder of Fridays for Future Windhoek asked “Who gave the government the right to determine the destiny of Indigenous communities? This is just another case of environmental racism” . Any project should have gone through environmental reviews and permitting processes under Namibian law, but organizations that monitor this process never saw one for this project [2, 10]. The public wants to know what the likely consequences would be of an oil find and the impacts to the Kavango regions and to the Okavango Basin. ReconAfrica refuses to discuss this . There are also global climate change concerns of extracting, exporting and eventually burning the oil.
ReconAfrica estimates that their license area could hold up to 120 billion barrels of crude oil [2, 9]. That amount of oil is more than the US would use in 4 years based on 2019 consumption patterns . Prospecting for oil in the face of climate change is illogical both morally, and economically. As we must shift away from fossil fuels, fracking and other fossil fuel projects are losing profitability.