Currents of War in the Kalahari

Water is a scarce resource, and threats to world peace over the supply and availability of water are common in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Now southern Africa can be added to that list. Just as India and Bangladesh; Israel, Palestine, and Jordan; and the nations along the Mekong River battle diplomatically and otherwise over water, so a major dispute over water is brewing in the heart of Africa's southern desert.

The Kavango or Okavango River rushes south out of the highlands of Angola, crosses the strange strip of Namibia that stretches eastward to the Zambezi River, and slowly spreads out before burying itself in the sands of northern Botswana.

The river goes nowhere, in good years flooding Botswana's vast Okavango delta toward the frontier town of Maun. A prosperous tourist industry has developed amid the islands and sand spits that stand above the eddying waters of the delta. Big game animals, unusual antelopes, and avifauna abound, attracting tourists each dry season as the waters slurp slowly south.

But Namibia now threatens this tourist attraction, which accounts for about 75 percent of Botswana's earnings from tourism, supplies 6 percent of the country's gross national product, and employs thousands. Water-short Namibia proposes to divert up to 120 million cubic meters of river flow a year by 2020, particularly during the dry season. During wet years, taking 120 million cubic meters of water would not endanger the delta's size, but in periods of drought, and especially during the dry season, such diversion could destroy the ecology of the delta.

Namibia urgently needs water for Windhoek, its capital of 300,000, and other cities set atop that country's desiccated interior. Central Namibia is into its fifth year of serious drought. In 1996, only 4 inches of rain, instead of the customary 50 inches, fell on Namibia's central plateau. As a result, Windhoek, one of the few capitals in the world to recycle and reuse 80 percent of its water, is expected to go dry sometime this year.

Namibia could tap the Kunene River, on its northern border with Angola, and then pipe the water south to Windhoek. The cost of doing so, however, is estimated to be three times greater (about $200 million) than diverting water from the Kavango in the Caprivi Strip. Namibia naturally prefers the waters on which Botswana relies. Namibia and Botswana already are at loggerheads over a nondescript and often flooded island in the Chobe River, on the southern border of the Caprivi Strip and upstream from Victoria Falls. The Namibians have accused the Botswana Defense Force, which attempts to patrol the little island, of harassment, rape, and stock theft, as well as war maneuvers.

Both countries have agreed to submit this dispute to the World Court. But recriminations have continued, and the confrontation over water is hardly making relations between the two lightly populated desert neighbors comfortable. What worries southern Africans and Americans, however, is Botswana's increasingly bellicose resort to arms purchases.

The Kalahari Desert, across which both Namibia and Botswana straddle, would be an unlikely and inhospitable theater of war. Water rights can seem as important, if not more important, than sovereignty, however, and Botswana will not easily tolerate the drying up of its lush inland delta.

South Africa, under President Nelson Mandela, has imposed conditions of peace on some of its less powerful neighbors. If the two desert neighbors cannot themselves divide the waters equitably, the Botswana-Namibia dispute could prove another arena of critical local intervention.

* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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