Opinionista Richard Lee 16 January 2014

The secret dash for gas: Chobe’s deadly asset

Chobe National Park is assumed to be a sanctuary for elephants and other wildlife threatened in Southern Africa. But Botswana’s government has been quietly granting gas concessions to vast tracts of land in the area, potentially endangering the single most important elephant park in the world.

In Southern African elephant corridors blocked by poachers, Don Pinnock paints an alarming picture of the threats facing Botswana’s huge elephant herds – how hordes of hunters and poachers are lining up to gun them down, and how thousands of hungry elephants are now trapped south of the Chobe river unable to head north to colonise the vast empty parks in Zambia and Angola.

It is a powerful piece and a potent call to arms. But there is one big problem with it. It is not nearly alarming enough.

Because Pinnock assumes that the elephants are safe as long as they are south of the river. He assumes that Chobe National Park will always provide them with sanctuary and that the Botswana government will do everything it can to ensure the long-term survival of the world’s largest elephant herds. But none of this can be taken for granted anymore because Chobe might be rich in more than just wildlife. It could be sitting on large reserves of another resource that many view as more ‘precious’ than elephants – natural gas.

And exploration is already underway.

As part of its secretive dash for gas over the past decade – something that was only brought to light late last year by a documentary entitled The High Cost of Cheap Gas – the Botswana government has been quietly granting gas concessions to vast tracts of land, including in and around the Chobe National Park.

In his Maverick piece, Pinnock includes a scary map of all the hunting concessions north of the river. However, the government of Botswana recently published another – even more terrifying – map detailing all the drilling concessions across the country. There are seven either within the Chobe National Park or in the vital buffer zones along its borders – seven large concessions handed over to international companies to prospect for gas deep inside or right next to the single most important elephant park in the world.

Yet no one is talking about this.

Understandably concerned about the huge upsurge in poaching across Africa, politicians, experts, academics and activists are focusing all their efforts on trying to stop the illegal ivory trade. Botswana itself – to yet more international acclaim – hosted an Emergency Elephant Summit last month. And yet at the same time, the government in Gaborone is ploughing ahead with a huge gas programme that could lead to commercial exploitation of coal bed methane (CBM) in and around Chobe (and other parks) – with all that entails for the environment and the future of the region’s elephants.

However, no one is tackling the Botswana government about its gas operations in such a critical and world-renowned conservation area. There was virtually no public debate about this issue until late last year – and surprisingly little since then. Environmental and conservation organisations do not seem to want to take on the government in Gaborone – perhaps because it has such an impressive track record when it comes to wildlife management or because President Khama has been such an outspoken champion of the environment and responsible tourism.

But they should. Because allowing any kind of drilling and exploration in and around Chobe is going to have a large impact on the fragile environment. Whatever the gas companies and their paid praise-singers chant, large-scale CBM exploitation will negatively affect the environment. The latest independent science from the USA, where CBM extraction was pioneered, shows that commercial exploitation can come with high costs – damaging human and animal health, and the environment to a far greater extent than was previously assumed.

For example, CBM extraction requires vast amounts of water to be pumped out of the ground, which can significantly lower the water table. In some parts of America, water tables have dropped by as much as 30 meters. That water also has to be disposed of properly as it can potentially be toxic and even radioactive. In the USA this ‘produced water’ is often stored in open pits, exposing wildlife and livestock to potentially dangerous levels of toxicity. Similar developments in Botswana will pose great risks to elephants and other wildlife, which are already struggling to access enough water.

Still, the government is pressing ahead.

In a very welcome move, the government did make a statement in Parliament after the film’s release to provide some information about its gas programme. But it is still very reticent about many issues, particularly about its plans for Chobe. Indeed, the Minister of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources only alluded to the gas operations around the park when pressed during a live debate on GABZ FM.

While still not coming clean, the Minister did not deny that exploration was underway either inside or along the borders of the park. In fact, he argued that “any government wants to know what resources you have where. And prospecting does not necessarily mean that you will see it to the end.” If reserves are found, then – the Minister said – you have to decide whether to stick with tourism and the environment or opt for the cash from mineral resources. Before adding – ominously for the elephants and the Chobe ecosystem as a whole – that the right question was “how do we do both sustainably?”

The reality is that you cannot extract gas in or around Chobe without damaging the environment to some extent. Elephants and other wildlife will clearly flee in the face of an advancing line of drills, roads and tankers. But flee where? With their northern escape route blocked by men with elephant guns, where will they go? Crammed into an ever smaller area, how will they survive? Especially when the gas wells end up polluting the land and water and air.

Chobe is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of cheap gas. It is the world’s last great elephant sanctuary – a unique ecosystem that needs to be protected at all costs. It is time for activists to fight this battle too – to convince the Botswana government to shelve its Chobe gas plans. If not, in a few years’ time, there may not be all that many elephants left to poach. DM


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