Alarm As Exploratory Drilling For Oil Begins In Northern Namibia

This article was written by on 28 December 2020

By Jim TanMongabay

  • Reconnaissance Energy Africa, an oil and gas company with headquarters in Canada, has recently begun exploratory drilling in northern Namibia.
  • Conservationists and local communities are concerned over the potential environmental impact that oil and gas extraction could have on such an important ecosystem.
  • Northern Namibia and Botswana have a number of interconnected watersheds including the Okavango Delta – the potential for pollutants to enter watercourses and spread throughout the region are a particular concern.

On December 21, Reconnaissance Energy Africa (Recon Africa) announced that it had begun exploratory drilling for oil and gas in the Namibian portion of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). The move has alarmed environmental campaigners and community groups who are concerned about the impact this could have on the region’s watercourses, people and wildlife.

Recon Africa is the holder of a licence to explore a 2.5 million hectare area (6.3-million-acres) of northeastern Namibia, granted to a predecessor company in January 2015. The majority of the area covered by Petroleum Exploration Licence (PEL) 73 sits in the KAZA, a conservation initiative covering 520,000 square kilometres (201,000 square miles) of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The company also has a licence to prospect for oil in another section of KAZA, 1 million hectare area (2.5 million acres) of northwestern Botswana, where it hopes to begin drilling in 2021.


The KAZA conservation area is home to the largest remaining population of African elephants and is one of the last remaining strongholds of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). Recon Africa’s exploration areas in both Botswana and Namibia fall largely within the Okavango River Basin which flows into the richly-biodiverse Okavango Delta — a UNESCO World Heritage site. Conservationists are particularly concerned by the potential impact drilling for oil and gas here could have on the interconnected watercourses of the river basin.

There is a serious lack of knowledge on groundwater resources in the target oil and gas extraction area,” said Surina Esterhuyse, a geohydrologist at the University of the Free State, South Africa. “In Botswana, the Okavango river basin is still relatively pristine, but the planned exploration and extraction could have serious impacts on the [Okavango] delta.”

Recon Africa is drilling into a 9,000-meter-deep sedimentary basin known to geologists as the Kavango Basin to establish whether there is actually oil beneath the KAZA, and if these resources can be economically exploited. Daniel Jarvie, a geochemist consulting for Recon Africa, estimates that the basin holds a similar potential quantity of extractable oil and gas as the Eagle Ford Basin in Texas, USA. Since production there began in 2008, over 20,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled at Eagle Ford.

Use and contamination of water.

“The possible impact that oil and gas extraction would have on the water resources in Namibia and Botswana is the biggest concern,” says Esterhuyse, whose research focuses on the impact of oil and gas extraction on groundwater resources. The two main areas of concern are the use of water, particularly in areas such as northern Namibia, where water is a scarce resource, and possible contamination of water sources through oil and gas extraction.

The risks posed by oil and gas extraction are greater if unconventional hydraulic fracturing techniques, commonly known as fracking, are used.  Regular references to “unconventional plays” in Recon Africa’s marketing material and the hiring of experienced fracking engineers have led to concerns that this may be the company’s intention.

Both Recon Africa spokesperson Claire Preece and the Namibian government have denied that there are any plans for fracking to take place.

Assessing impacts

So far the Namibian government has only approved the drilling to two test wells approximately 55km south of the town of Rundu. Any further activity would require additional environmental impact assessments and approval from the Namibian government, which has a 10% share in the oil exploration venture through the state oil company, NAMCOR. Whilst they await the outcome of the current operations, communities in the region are growing increasingly concerned.

“The local community are in darkness, they don’t have clues on what is going on,” said Max Muyemburuko, chairperson of the Muduva Nyangana Conservancy that lies in PEL 73. “They want their voices to be heard.”

Muyemburuko says they have not been contacted by Recon Africa or the Namibian government about potential plans for oil and gas production in the region. Residents of the Muduva Nyangana Conservancy rely on tourism income and natural resources from the land. Muyemburuko fears these could be jeopardised by pollution from oil and gas production.

“Kavango is the only land that we have,” he said. “We will keep it for the generation to come.”

The ministry of mines has said that proposed oil exploration activities will not harm the Okavango ecosystem in any way and highlight the potential economic benefits of a major oil discovery. The ministry also says that no oil and gas exploration will be allowed in national parks, but this does not include the KAZA conservation area which does not enjoy the same level of environmental protection as parks.

Recon Africa’s carefully crafted responses to challenges over environmental questions strike a sharp contrast to the company’s bold claims of an “unprecedented opportunity” in its marketing materials. If the Kavango Basin proves to have the lucrative potential that Recon Africa’s shareholders are hoping for, the Namibian government will face difficult questions over how to balance the allure of oil dollars against environmental protection for one of the world’s most important ecosystems.

This article was originally published in Mongabay, please find the original article here. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Featured image: Derek Keats via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

2 thoughts on “Alarm As Exploratory Drilling For Oil Begins In Northern Namibia”

  1. The human race (which anthropologists believe originated in the Namibia – Botswana region) faced no significant existential threat before the exploitation of oil began. Because of oil, however, every species on Earth now faces a severe threat to its existence.

    As for the Namibian government protecting the land, don’t bet on it. The fact that Recon Africa is based in Canada reminds me of Canada’s response to emvironmental concerns about the development of Alberta’s tar sands, and the dirtiest oil in the world.

    Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (a self-proclaimed environmentalist) had often criticized oil exploration in other countries. When it came to tar sands oil, however, he said development was “vital to Canada’s national interest.”

    We heard a similar response from California’s self-proclaimed environmentalist ex-governor, Jerry Brown, when he was questioned about fracking in California. As I recall, the phrase he used was “critical to the state’s economy.”

    The story is always the same: Economic interests invariably trump the environment when it comes to “our” oil.

    Back to Africa and foreign corporations: I’m currently working on an article explaining how corrupt African governments and uneducated African populations are vital to business in the exploiting countries, and how those three elements — foreign exploitation, local corruption, and uneducated masses — are together responsible for Africa’s insane population explosion, which threatens the existence of every species on the continent by 2100.

  2. When I was a high school freshman I began making a list of all the problems in the world for history class. By the time I reached the second or third page, I realized that the list would be ridiculously long if not infinite, so that I had to instead focus on the root causes.

    The physical root causes of all environmental and ecological problems are human overpopulation and overconsumption. The problem that this story describes is an overconsumption problem (though every problem is also rooted in overpopulation, in this case because if there were far fewer people on Earth, there would be far less of this stuff). There is so much of this kind of environmental and ecological destruction going on all over the planet that there’s generally no point in focusing on any one project or even a series of projects, though we clearly should be very concerned about the elephants, wild dogs, and other native life that is going to be killed, displaced, and/or harmed by this. As long as people insist on living industrial lifestyles, this kind of planetary destruction will continue. THAT’s what we should be discussing, wasting time on mere symptoms like this prevents us from getting to real solutions.

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