Botswana on fire again

Botswana on fire again

8 October 2008

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Botswana — Never before, has Botswana been ravaged by unrelenting wild fires that have left protected areas such as the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR), Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and Tsodilo Hills utterly desolate.

With about 60 percent of the country’s protected and heritage sites wiped out, the tourism industry is bound to be in the doldrums.

It goes without saying that there could have been some cancellations of bookings to the affected tourist destinations, especially in the acclaimed Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve. Although the cost of destruction has not been determined, there is a fear that it could run into millions of Pula as it involves loss of property and wildlife with a rippling effect on the eco-system of Africa’s only surviving wilderness. 

Concern has been expressed about measures to be taken to manage, rather than fighting, the fires. While we appreciate the role played by the department of Forestry and range resources of engaging a consultant to draft a fire management policy, we feel the document is belated. Much has happened since 2007, when workshops were conducted in Gantsi, Francistown and Palapye to accord stakeholders an opportunity to contribute towards the development of the policy and to promote an integrated inter-governmental fire management approach.

This was a step in the right direction, but time lapse has brought unprecedented challenges precipitated by climate change and undue delay. The number of outbreaks and cases of resurgence this year are a testimony that Botswana is experiencing climate change as a result of global warming. The fires are seen as the beginning of the wrath of nature that Botswana cannot avoid. For this reason, we expect the policy to consider social, economic and environmental criteria that would save the country from what appears to be the battle of Armageddon.

Experience has shown that in Botswana, much of the resources are taken by the battle against wild fire, instead of managing it as the saying goes “DON’T FIGHT IT, MANAGE IT! It is estimated that more than P1 million could have been spent on food for fire teams throughout the country during the current fire season. This is management by crisis, which contributes to huge losses on the country’s natural resources, adversely affecting community trusts, especially in the northwestern part of the country.

There are shocking reports that 10 ranches in Sandvelds in the Central District have been completely destroyed by the fires, believed to have started in Kodibeleng. More damage of property and life is expected as more fires, are still raging throughout the country without respite. It is also feared that much of the communal grazing in the area affected could have been destroyed.

What is more worrying is that members of the BDF, police, public  officers and members of the public are engaged throughout the country to fight resurgent outbreaks in Botswana’s only world Heritage site, Tsodilo Hills as well as in Moremi Game Reserve and the Chobe National Park. The Okavango is also reported to be up in smoke again from Namibia, while there is another spill-over from Zimbabwe through the Hwange National Park to the Chobe District.  

Satellite images also show another onslaught of fires from South Africa that could have devastating effect on the southern part of the country. Granted, the country may not have control over the external forces of fire, but measures to deal or manage them must be in place.

It is evident that loads of fuel from the previous wet season and the wind deflection inherent in August and September compound the situation, while lack of equipment exacerbated the problem. According to a 2006 equipment inventory, Gantsi, which is managing CKGR had 65 fire beaters, 3 x 200L water sprays while the condition of 4 x 500L water sprays (wheeled) is not known. 

It is imperative now to purchase more equipment, to provide access roads, in addition to fire breaks and also to monitor the weather to ensure that there are no surprises. It would also be ideal for the government to benchmark from countries like the United States of America and Australia which have experiences of wild fires. We are however aware that we differ on causes of these fires. One of the papers presented at a workshop in Palapye last year ascribed 50 percent of the wild fires in Botswana to lightening, while another 50 percent is caused by man. The ratio was not accepted by participants, arguing that there is very little rain in Botswana to account for that proportion. The workshop unanimously agreed that wild fires in Botswana are man-made and there is no question about it.

A report by DFRR bears testimony to this and pointed an accusing finger at some grass harvesters and blamed lightening only in one occasion when it struck near Lobatse where 1,550 hectares of land was consumed by fire. Conversely, the report said humans accounted for destruction of 5,350 hectares of land in Lobatse periphery. By parity of reasoning, causes of fire in Botswana cannot be ascertained, but are blamed on those who lack public education. It is not an offence to make fire and there are no regulations on how to manage it in case it goes out of control. This and others constitute a time bomb that is threatening our survival.

Thanks to DFRR, which  receives information about wild fires from a satellite, using MODIS sensor from the South African Center for Satellite Application. In its report of 2006, DFRR says 10 per cent of land in Botswana was affected by fires that consumed approximately 5,716,201 ha. of land, and by comparison the situation is worse this year.

In another report, the Ministry of Agriculture provides background to the trail of destruction the country is going through since 1997. The report says 241 wild fires were recorded in 1997 during which two people were killed and two others were injured. The fires also killed 38 goats, 19 sheep, six cattle, seven horses and 16 donkeys. In the following year, (1998) 105 wild fires were recorded, killing 15 cattle and destroying 19 houses. In 1999, there were 168 wild fires, killing 81 cattle, 30 goats, four donkeys and destroying four houses and six ranches including 30 fields.

The fires were raging at a time when communities were not willing to help suppress wild fires. The situation is reported to have gradually changed with the scrapping of nights-out for public officers. This was a bone of contention between public officers and volunteers who also demanded to be paid nights-out for overnight activities. This calls for both the government and communities to be actively involved in protecting state and tribal land against wild fires using available resources. This partnership could only work through rigorous public education, especially on elements of fire management, such as creating awareness and providing knowledge about wild fires, enabling communities to enforce regulations that suppress wild fires and assisting communities to form vibrant fire teams.

There is already a proposal by DFRR to involve communities by giving them responsibility to manage fire breaks passing in the proximity of their villages, using their community trust resources or to form new ones where they do not  exist. This means that trusts should be empowered and financially assisted to deal with fires and other disasters. It is through this initiative that community trusts can protect their natural resources, which are always susceptible to destruction by fire. It would be ideal if trusts could be considered in the policy to be part of the solution for the maintenance of fire breaks in Botswana.

The perception about fire in Botswana is that it is dangerous, rightly so, because many people have failed to use it as a management tool for conservation reasons, such as removal of old growth, suppression of bush encroachment and stimulation of growth of grazing grass. It could also be used to maintain fire breaks in a prescribed area. In some cases, it is used for killing ticks and destroying weeds. Fire could also be used as a tool to achieve land management objectives. What needs to be done now is to educate communities on the positive side of fire, underpinning the importance of fire management, including suppression and controlled burning  There must be a prescribed burning calendar to guide communities on when and how to use fire as a tool for land management. 

Regulations on grass harvesting, collection of firewood should also be considered and enforced in the policy to ensure that all doors for agents of fire are closed.

As farmers in Botswana like heavy loads of fuel, especially grass for their livestock from the previous rains, they should be prepared for the suppression of the outbreaks.  

Most Batswana have noticed with concern that the fires, which have now become regular, have changed the country’s vegetation dynamics, forcing livestock and wildlife  to eat generics of the vegetation. It has become common knowledge that vegetation after the fire is never the same, as it was the practice in the past. This means that farmers and hunters who used fire as a tool to bring in new growth, should give up the idea. It is also tragic for migrating wildlife to find nothing in their land of plenty after being driven by instinct to their natural habitat where they perish.

Realizing the volume of work and magnitude of the problem, DFRR should be made a fully-fledged department mandated to control and coordinate fire operations, information and prevention without orders from the ministry. Currently, the department is suppressing wild fires with district fire crews and the assistance of the local communities, the Botswana Defence Force, the Botswana Police Service, the department of wildlife and national parks, district councils, buildings department, central transport organisation, private sector and other volunteering stakeholders.

It is worth mentioning that in the past, the Ministry of Agriculture used billboards all over the country with a message, “Se tshube naga” meaning, don’t cause wild fire. This was an initiative that created awareness, but was not proactive because contacts of relevant authorities were not provided in case of an outbreak, nor information about the place where the board was placed. DFRR should revisit the idea because much of this country is traversed by tourists who could provide clues about the causes of some outbreaks.

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