Botswana’s lake that came back to life

Only animals had not written off Lake Ngami, an inland lake in north-west Botswana famous for the birds that breed on its shores...

For residents of Sehithwa, 80 kilometres south of Botswana’s resort town of Maun, the fate of the once popular bird sanctuary had been written and sealed.

The area that was once Lake Ngami had been turned into fields.

But an occasional horse or donkey carcass during the 20 years the lake had been dry showed that animals still had hopes that it would refill again.

The lake, named by Livingstone in 1890, the first European to visit the area, would however turn into a dustbowl of loose black clay soil in dry seasons.

The north-west District Council had already constructed a road through the lake to access small villages scattered around the lake, a development that showed that even the forum of legislators had given up hope of the lake ever flowing again.

In May last year high volumes of water that poured into the Okavango River from the Angolan highlands since early January managed to find their way into the lake breathing a new lease of life.

The lake has turned into an enormous oasis in Sehithwa's arid environmental condition giving a new lease of life not only to animals but to people also.

Maun and the surrounding villages, including Sehitwa are fed water by the perennial flooding of the Okavango Delta, an inland oasis that is Botswana’s main tourism drawcard.

The delta also provides a source of employment for many in the many safari camps and hunting lodges.

"I no longer have to travel to the delta to fish as the inflow also brought with it fish," said Galerone Moremi, who runs a small fishing business in Sehithwa.

"My children who were born after 1984 are seeing so much water for the first time," said Moremi.

The lake has covered over 10 square kilometres and it is hoped that the new lease of life would last forever. The papyrus that used to block all tributaries that entered Lake Ngami has dried up signifying that it can now cover a vast area.

Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist at the University of Botswana’s Harry Opeinheimer Okavango Research Station in Maun could only describe the resurrection of Lake Ngami as "amazing".

"One of the interesting facts is that the water that reached the lake didn't come through Maun's Thamalakane River, but through a new route that comes straight from the Okavango River into Toteng and finally into the lake," said Wolski.

"The channel that brought water into the lake is not known. It is a channel that also dried up a long time ago.”

According to environmentalists, Lake Ngami provides the richest breeding conditions for waterfowls that exist in sub-Saharan Africa. And millions of birds have started migrating back following the flooding of the lake.

Birdlife Botswana identify the species of birds that have so far been spotted at the lake as red billed ducks, pochards, Fulvous tree ducks, Painted Snipe, red knotted coot, moorhens and pratincoles.

In October last year the country’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks announced a blanket ban on hunting in the vicinity of the lake saying this was an important breeding area for most bird species.

This followed concerned raised by bird enthusiasts that gunshot sounds were disturbing birds that were breeding. The ban is yet to be published in the Government Gazette.

Nevertheless, the 1984 incident was not the first time the lake dried up. In 1890, Livingstone wrote that Lake Ngami dried up and shrunk significantly.

Questions remain as to why the lake dried up in the first place. Most Sehithwa residents suspect that it was a result of the activities of the Anglo American company that diverted water to the diamond mining town of Orapa.

Anglo America is the former owner of most diamond mines in the country before the advent of Debswana, a 50–50 partnership between the Botswana government and diamond mining giant De Beers.