Ripple effects of veldt fires on Botswana

Ripple effects of veldt fires on Botswana

16 October 2008

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Botswana — The much-awaited end of veldt fire season has arrived, but it will be remembered for its immeasurable damage to property and life, although the extent of devastation is still being assessed.

Officially, the veldt fire season in Botswana starts in July to October, but this year, fire outbreaks started in April in earnest and have already consumed 70 percent of Chobe, 80 percent of CKGR and 70 percent of Ngamiland. 

Other areas like Kweneng west and Kgalagadi have also suffered, but records of their damage are not available yet. Almost all the protected areas have been affected and several Batswana at Kaka and Sandveld ranches have been left gaping at the loss of their farms.  We have also learnt with sadness and horror how Nata Lodge, known for its serenity was reduced to rubble by a raging fire. Although we have not received casualty reports, we fear for the livestock and wildlife in the affected area.

According to the acting director of the department of forestry and range resources-DFRR, Raymond Kwerepe, the fires have also dislodged all the six forest reserves in northern Botswana.  The reserves; Chobe Forest Reserve, Kasane Forest Reserve, Kasane Extension Forest Reserve, Maikaelelo Forest Reserve, Kafuma Forest Reserve and Savuyu Forest Reserve were established by Forest Reserve Act of 1968 and have been home to diverse species of flora and fauna. 

In the Okavango alone, there are 1078 recognised plant species, which could be affected when the fire surged into the area.  These and others found in the Chobe provide a sharp contrast, yet a compelling beauty to ardent lover of nature. 

Sadly, some of them may be gone for good as effect of climate change is adversely affecting vegetation dynamics.The endemic peat fires in the area also compound the problem, as they are believed to account for some fire outbreaks, especially in areas where there are heavy loads of fuel. 

According to Peter Smith, who extensively researched on plants in the Okavango, peat fires burn on different layers of papyrus for several years. It is only when the top layer is burning that smoke can be seen coming from the ground.  

These layers form over a period of time, occasioned by the changing levels of water in the delta.  But with little water coming from Angola, we may be bracing for the worst.  In the past, water used to arrive in Shakawe from Angola in February and in Maun around June or July, but the situation is now different because Angola does not get enough rain in September as it used to. 

On the other hand, raging fires are taking their toll on the remaining vegetation and forests impacting negatively on the country’s carbon zinc. This should be a lesson to all those who manage the country’s environmental assets, particularly the forests.  

The Chobe Forest Reserve, endowed with natural resources and wildlife, should serve as a good example of community-managed reserve. The reserve is leased to a community trust in Chobe west, one of the richest and successful trusts in the country. The trust uses the reserve as a habitat, where even rarest species domiciled. It is also a tourist destination that has international connections through tour operators.   

Sadly, it would appear the trust is running the forest reserve without land and forest management objectives, let a lone access to fire equipment in the district. 
According to reliable sources, the only fire engine for the country is based in Chobe district to protect the forest reserves, but it remains a mystery why it could not salvage the reserves from the raging veld fire that is believed to have entered the country from the Caprivi Strip. 

We have also been informed that when the fire started, a kgotla meeting was called, but only four people attended the meeting.  If this is true, it means there is a serious problem in the area for the district leadership to address as a matter of urgency.    All the forest reserves are assets from which communities in Chobe district and elsewhere should benefit, but unfortunately, information about these benefits does not trickle down to the beneficiaries. In the absence of this information, there’s bound to be a paradigm for negative attitude.

As we are only left with eight years to 2016 as national target, it is imperative that we should start conceptualising direct and indirect benefits of environmental assets to beneficiaries in an effort to lessen the effects of climate change. The old generation, especially the rural populace, may not comprehend the carbon zinc process provided by the forest as a direct benefit to them.  But they may understand it better if it is a subject of public education rather than a kgotla meeting. 

The Amazon rain forest, now threatened by illegal logging is not able to provide this service and those like Batswana, who have established forest reserves by act of parliament, should continue to nurture them by empowering communities to jealously guard against their destruction. 

This stands to reason that all the six-forest reserve should be leased to communities to protect them from illegal logging and veldt fires.Communities should be empowered with knowledge and information about the benefits the forest offers apart from the provision of Mukwa and Mukhusi railway slippers to the defunct Rhodesian Railways. 

This, and other indirect benefits, may not attract community involvement like in a trust, especially in Chobe and the Okavango Delta where a conflict exists between tour operators and communities. This conflict thrives on lack of general information on tourism as industry and continues to stimulate a rift that inhibits co-existence in these areas.  However, the Sankoyo and Mababe communities, as well as the Chobe west communities are exception to the prevailing attitude. 

They have demonstrated to other communities through benchmarking and workshops that tour operators are partners in the trade, but public education is still imperative to change the mind-set towards the industry.It is a fact that much of the forest reserves and the general area of the Chobe district, are mostly known to tour operators than they are to Batswana. 

Some places like Nogatsaa, 70 km from Serondela near Kasane, boasts a mixture of Mopane and deciduous forests, which have not been tapped and should be preserved for posterity.   Coming from Kasane, through Parakarungu in Chobe west, to Beetsha in the Okavango is one of the ideal routes to feast eyes on the rare species of flora and fauna that have surely been disturbed or killed by the fire that entered Botswana from the Caprivi Strip through Kwando Lenyanti area. 

We only hope that this disturbance will not replicate the 1986 tragedy when an incident of this nature forced thousands of panic-stricken eland and wildebeest to cross into neighbouring countries. We still have fresh memories of wildlife roaming villages in recent years looking for water and subsequently decimated by hunger and humans.  If this happens this time, our fragile tourism industry will be grossly affected.

In this connection, we should critically look at the structure of our firebreaks, whether they are proportionate to the heavy loads of fuel generated on their avenues or whether they are regularly maintained.  The information we have is that they are regularly maintained by private companies, although some breach the conditions of their contracts. 

The firebreaks constitute 10,000 km in length throughout the country.  By international standards, a firebreak should be 20 meters wide, but heavy fuel loads, which usually drive the fire across to the other side of the break, may need to be removed through control burning.   The abundance of logs in forest reserves also poses a serious problem, especially as agents of resurgent fires.  According to Kwerepe, most of the fires that erupted during this season were successfully suppressed, but without mopping up exercise there was bound to be resurgent outbreaks.

He ascribed the problem partly to the accumulation of logs that would slowly keep burning inside until it becomes a resurgent outbreak.  Kwerepe underscored the fact that during the suppression exercise, fire teams were always in a hurry to put out the fire sometime with very little time to go back for purposes of checking.  

He said in worst cases, a veldt fire could be carried by wind over a distance of five kilometers, posing a danger to teams and causing more outbreaks and destruction from a single strike.

There is however an edifice of hope that the policy and some initiatives that are being drafted would endeavour to address some of the pertinent issues raised.  We are reliably informed that a four person Botswana delegation recently went to Australia to learn how to suppress veldt fires in Botswana.   

Australia has similar climate conditions like Botswana and has a history of unrelenting veldt fires.  Sources from DFRR say a team of fire experts from Australia may come to Botswana as a follow up to the benchmarking mission.   

On the other hand, we are informed that the long awaited National wildlife Policy and Strategy would be presented to parliament in the next sitting.  The policy was presented to cabinet early this year, but was returned to be perfected before it could be presented to parliament before the end of the year. 

This will probably level the playing field for preservation of environmental assessment currently administered under the Forest Reserve Act of 1968, which was only applicable in Kasane.  This means that   there has been no act to enforce the preservation and protection of natural resources from indiscriminate harvesting of natural resources for commercial purposes. 

Firewood and thatching grass along the roads will disappear once the policy is in force.  There is no provision for the commercialisation of natural resources by individuals and it is hoped that the policy would provide a paradigm shift for generations to come.  Once the policy has been passed by parliament, DFRR will craft regulations, which will empower law enforcement officers to arrest and prosecute those who are not environmentally friendly.

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