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Report: 2022 Okavango Delta Crossing Reveals A Healthy Ecosystem, But Challenges Persist

During the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project’s (NGOWP) annual crossing of the Okavango Delta, community members often ask our expedition team - “how’s the water?” In fact, water is so valued in Botswana that the currency is called the ‘pula’, which means ‘rain’ or ‘blessing’ in the Setswana language. You’ll often hear shouts of “pula” when rainfall from Angola comes to fill the Okavango Delta downstream in Botswana.

The one million people and iconic wildlife who live along the Okavango Basin rely on it for food and water. Since 2015, NGOWP has been working to protect the Basin for generations to come, from its source in the Angolan highlands, to its terminus, the Okavango Delta. One of the ways that mission comes to life is through the annual crossing of the Okavango Delta - which is a checkup on the Delta’s health and heartbeat.

During the annual transect, the NGOWP team crosses the Delta using mekoro, collecting scientific data and observations along the way. The expedition team works to detect changes in water quality and flow, habitat quality, and biodiversity; determine whether the changes are natural or caused by human activities (for example pollution, resource overuse such as overfishing, and water diversion); and take remedial action where needed. And often, trends in the Delta are indicative of what’s happening upstream.

So, how’s the water?

Recently, the NGOWP team released a report on its 2022 Delta crossing, which followed two routes: a Western transect from Mopiri to Maun, and an Eastern transect from Seronga to Maun. There are four important takeaways to consider as NGOWP gears up for the 2023 Delta crossing.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Little changes occurred in 2022 - and that’s a good thing! As with previous Delta crossings, the 2022 report found there was little change in biodiversity, habitat quality, and water quality. This is a promising result that’s not shared with many other river systems in Africa.
  • Still, human activity - particularly fires - remains a concern. While our findings reveal the Delta is still pristine, we can’t lose sight of human activity - in particular, increasing fire frequency. This is not limited to the Delta, but also its Angolan headwaters. These fires are often associated with lightning strikes and dry fuel loads, and they tend to peak in September, before the rainy season. Adaptive fire management strategies are needed to avoid the risk of “savannisation” (conversion to a dry, savanna grassland), says the 2022 report.
  • Traditional knowledge and cutting-edge technology work hand-in-hand. In addition to routine scientific data collection, for the first time in 2022, we focused on documenting traditional knowledge from local people and village elders. In many areas, their local knowledge predates academic science. For example, they’ve long known which species have traditionally been indicators of a healthy ecosystem. Our scientific team used drones, 360-degree cameras, and environmental DNA (eDNA) to count these species, from the smallest dragonflies, to Angolan reed frogs, to elephants.
  • Future research directions abound. The 2022 report identified a number of future research directions, with the goal of building a bigger, better picture of the Delta’s ecological health. These include:
    • Incorporating water sampling for both transects, for further chemical analyses;
    • Exploring the role of groundwater in changing the Delta’s water chemistry;
    • Increasing termite collections, to aid studies on the diversity of Botswana’s termites (the “architects of the Delta” that create mounds connecting one island to another);
    • Understanding the role of human-caused fire and fire ignitions in the Delta and its Angolan headwaters.

“ The National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project’s Annual Delta Crossing began many years ago as an audacious research expedition,” said Rainer von Brandis, research director for NGOWP . “But it has since evolved to become one of the most critical activities that supports NGOWP’s mission, and a way to support livelihoods and launch the careers of promising scientists, polers, and storytellers.”

The 2023 annual Delta crossing will start on August 1, 2023. Every year, the team adds to the data collected, providing a more robust scientific baseline. These annual transects are also crucial for detecting signs of ecosystem degradation, so we can act quickly, decisively, and guided by science.

Follow the 2023 Delta crossing’s progress on Facebook @okavangowildernessproject and Instagram: @intotheokavango

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