National Geographic : 2017 Nov
okaVango 103 to the delta, from Angola through the Caprivi Strip to Botswana, several factors are especially fateful. The delta itself receives rainfall but not much, and mostly during the summer months of December through March. Angola’s central highlands receive far more, a great wet bounty, roughly 50 inches annually, which saturates the peat deposits and sands of the upper Cuito flood- plains and then slowly, after delay, flows down the Cuito and its tributaries. Those rains feed the Cubango too, but the Cubango River catchment lies on steeper, rockier substrate, so the seasonal rainwater comes gushing down fast. The result of these asynchronies is that the Okavango Delta gets three separate pulses of wa- ter annually, giving it a longer and more varied supply of moisture than most freshwater wet- lands enjoy. Freshwater coming in pulses, spread across the year, distributed in an ever changing pattern of channels and pans and lagoons, nur- turing vegetation of many types, fertilized by the dung of elephants and hippos and impalas—all this is a good recipe for biological fecundity. The biggest challenge faced by the Okavango Wilderness Project is not just to understand this complex system—that’s hard enough—but to persuade Angolan officialdom, and the Angolan people, to preserve the Cuito and Cubango Riv- ers roughly as they are, flowing free and clean, without much pollution or diversion, through landscapes mostly undamaged by timber har- vest, charcoalmaking, forest burning for hunt- ing drives, commercial extraction of bush meat, agricultural schemes demanding high inputs of fertilizer, mining, or other destructive uses. It’s an urgent task and not an easy one. Some optimists propose that landscapes along the Cuito and Cubango could become interna- tional tourism destinations themselves, sites of high-end lodges drawing visitors to see restored populations of magnificent wildlife, such as the Angolan giant sable, that were mostly lost during the decades of war. Maybe such attractions could be included in a regional circuit, they suggest, along with more famous camps in the Okavango. Another hope is that the Botswana government and its tourism industry might recognize the jeopardy of their wonderland—recognize that without the Cuito and the Cubango, there is no Okavango Delta—and act with foresight, offering a compact of payments to Angola for continued delivery of the water. Call it ransom or call it a “wa- ter bond” (as Steve Boyes does), it seems rational. Rationality and foresight might be improbable expectations when it comes to intergovernmental relations over resource issues, but the Okavango Delta itself is an improbable phenomenon deserv- ing exceptional concern, imagination, and effort. Meanwhile the changes in Angola, as Boyes told me, are happening fast. “If we started this work in three years’ time, there’d be nothing left to protect.” The future is coming like a river that flows through other people’s lives. j The Makgadikgadi Pans are flat, salty remnants of an ancient lake, rich with life, that covered much of northern Botswana until faulting diverted the source rivers. Khoisan bushmen now lead tourists here, offering a vision of majestic desola- tion—and what the Okavango Delta might be without its water. Contributing writer David Quammen’s new book, on the molecular “tree of life,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2018. Cory Richards has photographed nine stories for the magazine. His previous article, “Myanmar’s Toughest Climb,” ran in September 2015.