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Fluid Lives: Cycles of the Boteti

Fluid Lives: Cycles of the Boteti

Thoralf Meyer


Botswana is home to a myriad of projects funded by government and NGO (non-governmental organisations) groups interested in research, education and outreach. As area researchers can attest, funding these days is not only highly competitive but can take years to procure.

One US-based agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), established a Rapid Response programme to provide smaller grants in unusual situations where time is critical and the opportunity to capture that phenomenon of interest would be lost if proposals were routed through normal channels.

This programme, called RAPID, has fascilitated research projects including the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the US Gulf Coast and similar environmental, social, and political reactions to other hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis around the world.

A collaboration of US and Maun based researchers led by the University of Texas several years ago were following with interest the increasing river levels upstream of the Okavango Delta, particularly at the Rundu and Mohembo stations. Previous time-series analysis by the Texas team of vegetation, flooding, and fire trends suggested that, as some local researchers were noting, the Okavango Basin appeared to be heading into a wetter period. For the Delta, this meant more precipitation and more water from upstream headwaters.

Speculating that water would thus return to the Boteti River outflow system, a proposal was submitted to judge people’s perceptions and livelihood planning before the water returned.

Many hazard studies are necessarily conducted after the disaster has hit. But in this case researchers had the opportunity to interview people before and after the water’s return. Doing so let them understand how people’s perceptions change after such an event and how those perceptions vary with how long people have lived in that system and their cultural background.

The grant was small by international standards ($25,708 or roughly BWP 165,000) but was proof that small budgets can still yield important results. Despite the scientific acknowledgment that tracking climatic time signals is highly complex, elders in the area when interviewed exhibited a very good understanding of the precipitation and flood cycles in the area. Families and individuals that had grown up in that area and could remember the days when the Boteti was flowing reported primarily positive expectations about the return of the river. In contrast, those who had moved into the area in the last 20 years expressed grave concerns about lumpskin disease spreading from the water to cattle, child fatalities from drowning and crocodiles, and crop damage from hippos. The bottom line recommendation for policy makers as Botswana sees greater flooding, is that preventative education about rising waters may in fact go a long way to mitigating negative perceptions and enabling proactive planning.

A seemingly unrelated finding also cropped up during the interviews: the majority of respondents volunteered in interviews that whether the river returned or not did not have nearly as big an impact on their lives as the delayed re-opening of the Maun abbatoir. Families located along the Boteti in comparison to the location of veterinary fences faced costs so high to move cattle to the Francistown abbatoir that they refused to sell their cattle, hoping for the delays in Maun to end. Luckily the Maun abbatoir is now up and running again – good news for those living along the Boteti – and this research team notes the importance for researchers to always ask local interviewees not just about their own scientific interests but what is in the minds of local residents.

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 07, Dec 2011)