Paradise Lost - Remembering the Okavango

There are few left to remember the Okavango Delta as it once was. When asked about the region today, most would think of abandoned oil rigs and dying towns. But the Okavango was once world famous and wildlife rich, a massive inland delta boasting pristine wilderness through which trillions of gallons of water flowed through a shifting landscape of islands, channels, and lagoons, making it home to one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. It may never be recreated.

The tragedy of the Okavango begins in the 2050s. The Joint Reopening pursued by the Union brought the country back into the global economic system, and undreamed of wealth flowed into the Republics, largely driven by resource extraction and manufacturing. The rising tide did not lift all boats, however. Much of the success was limited to the densely populated and already well developed southern Republics, and in the north, many had reason to fear that they would be left out of the boom. However, as industry exploded in the south, it drove a new demand for energy, one which northern leaders realized they could fulfil.

“It was almost colonialist, in some ways,” Kaire Andjaba, Chairman of the People’s Environmental Council, said in a 2098 speech, “It’s easy to lay the blame at the feet of the local officials in Kavango and Tswana, but it was corporations from eKapa, Tshwane,and eGoli who really pushed for it. Of course they were misleading about the long term effects, and everyone back then was saying that their projections and promises were too optimistic, but nobody wanted to hear it. Oil was the magic word in Nkurenkuru, oil would solve all the problems and make the poverty go away. That was the spirit of the times, and the people who lobbied for it are just as responsible as the ones who allowed themselves to be misled or bribed.”

The first indications of oil in the Okavango were found in the 2020s, however it wasn’t until subsequent explorations in the 2040s when the full potential of the reserves was realized. It was perhaps one of the last big inland finds in history, located right in the Delta’s pristine wilderness.

“They were looking at huge oil reserves, huge shale reserves,” Green Movement leader Seretse Masire said, “But you have to understand, the Okavango was not just some wildlife preserve. It was an environment unlike anywhere else in the world, and hundreds of thousands of people relied on its waters.”

Indeed, the drilling posed huge risks to local communities. In this arid region, surface water alone is insufficient, and locals often rely on groundwater. The shallow regional water table was especially vulnerable. Even worse, the Okavango has no outlet, and any toxic chemicals would become long term pollutants in the region.

Tshwane Gas Works, the company which conducted the drilling, had promised that wastewater and toxic drill cuttings would be carefully disposed of, however it is undeniable that the Delta has been badly affected over the years. The drilling took place on important migratory routes for one of the largest remaining elephant populations in Africa, and human activities badly disrupted the herd’s travel, even as poaching intensified thanks to improved access via the new road systems in the area. Other species, from antelopes to wild dogs, would suffer severe habitat loss.

Humans too, would be forced out of the area. Even as oil workers from around the country flocked to the new industry, local pastoral nomad groups such as the Khoekhoe as well as the hunter-gatherer San would have their ways of life destroyed as the failing ecosystem could no longer support the herds they relied on. The project would be marred by intermittent violence between the new settlers and the area’s old inhabitants, while the military was forced to patrol the Delta to destroy illegal oil rigs or bands of local guerillas. The slow poisoning of such an important water source would force entire communities to relocate, causing a ripple of social and economic turmoil across the Union.

Modern researchers link this period of ecological collapse to numerous political shifts, ranging from the rise of the Green Movement to the gradual reduction of the single-party system. For the Okavango, it all may have come too late. By the 2080s, the spread of advancing technology and the increasing popularity of renewables had irreversibly cut the need for oil, causing the shutdown of one site after another in the Okavango, often with little in the way of cleanup. In many areas, production continues, largely to meet what demand remains, however the region that would have been a new industrial heartland in the north has become known as the nation’s rust belt. The 2090s saw the beginning of efforts to restore the Delta, starting with cleaning up the waterways and disposing of abandoned drilling sites. The reintroduction of wildlife through breeding programs and more recently cloning efforts has also seen some success. Vast stretches of the Delta remain barren, however, and the continued operation of numerous rigs and widespread fracking activity continues to cause new damage which may never be repaired.

— Prologue from Paradise Lost - Remembering the Okavango, an Afrikans-language documentary aired in 2100

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