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The Okavango River Basin

The Okavango River Basin is a large river system whose headwaters begin in sub-tropical Angola before meandering along the semi-arid Angola-Namib border before dumping into one of the world’s largest inland deltas. The mighty river flows into Botswana, seasonally flooding the Okavango delta, considered one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots. I found myself in sub-Saharan Africa after graduating university, working along the river for the Namibia Nature Foundation.The project was called Every River Has Its People and its primary objective was empowering local rural communities to better manage and protect their riparian resources. So amidst the crocodiles, hippopotami, African skimmers and tiger fish, I was put in charge of developing an environmental monitoring system for the program. At the time, my idealism was strong and I tried to understand the challenges and needs for this large, ecologically and culturally diverse area.

I was immediately confronted with a daunting complexity of issues, simplistically reduced to a vicious circle of poverty, desperation, and then environmental degradation as fish and shoreline vegetation were overharvested and water quality and quantity perennially decreased. In the end, the additional task of environmental monitoring, requiring time and dedication that could otherwise be spent foraging, herding, or fishing, was too onerous for many communities to maintain. Understanding the impacts to the river meant deploying a monitoring system over its entire 1,700 km reach, from the headwaters in Angola to the delta in Botswana. At the time, in 2005, there was no technology available to easily retrieve or communicate monitoring data.

Despite being humbled by my experience in Africa, the realization of interconnectedness between ecological health and human well-being was impressionable. Since then I have pursued a career in conservation and environmental management in western Canada. I’ve worked in some of the world’s premier wilderness areas, each uniquely yet consistently threatened by what can categorically be described as a ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Human activity slowly but incrementally affects detrimental changes - from land conversion to resource extraction to recreational use. Biodiversity and watershed health were and continue to be threatened in every place I’ve worked: in coastal BC’s Great Bear Rainforest, in southeastern BC’s Flathead Valley, in Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, in Alberta’s Bow Valley ... the list goes on. The pattern is striking: no matter whether the threat is from logging, mining, oil and gas, motorized recreation, etc. it is near-impossible to untangle the impacts from one activity, and the combined effects are not detected until the damage has been done. In every situation, better monitoring - meaning more frequent data collected systematically over a broader area - could have improved early detection of environmental degradation and provided evidence to enable a response. In many instances environmental monitoring systems were never implemented because the remote nature of the areas and logistical constraints made prospects cost-prohibitive. Even when environmental monitoring is mandated through environmental impact assessment processes, the limitations have always been the ability to consistently deploy and collect data from sensors in remote or challenging terrain.

I now live in the Yukon, fulfilling a long-held dream to work and play in this vast, stunning wilderness with intact large predator-prey systems and (mostly) free-flowing and unpolluted rivers. Even here, however, new roads into new mines fragment the landscape through human incursions. Salmon populations are in decline and efforts to stabilize caribou populations are ongoing. As someone employed to tackle complex wildlife management and land-use issues, it is disheartening to know that in this field of work, there are very few success stories. Despite international efforts to emphasize sustainability and mitigate environmental impacts, global biodiversity is in decline and many other indicators of environmental well-being show bleak trends.

A sobering analogy is that the world is experiencing a slow crippling of life support systems; environmental monitoring is the ability to check vital signs that signal compromised organs. Monitoring networks alert decision-makers to species population declines, to early signs of contamination, to flood risks, to air pollution, to pipeline failures. Scientific literature is replete with studies that conclude that more environmental data is needed. But as the demand for monitoring has increased, the capacity to do so has not kept up. As new technology comes online, foresters, geologists, hydrologists, biologists and the companies, governments, and non-profits they work for, are seeking to narrow the gap between the world we want and our understanding of how to live in it.