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Botswana: Diamond Hopes, Diamond Blues

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Stephanie Koch

By LINDA QIU, for The Pulitzer Center

The village of Maboane pumps 22.3 million liters of water daily—enough to fill nine Olympic-sized swimming pools—but its 2,000 inhabitants rarely taste a drop of it.

Located about 60 kilometers north of Jwaneng, the richest diamond mine in the world, Maboane is in the midst of a well field, hosting 27 boreholes for Jwaneng’s around-the-clock operations and one for residential purposes. The latter provides water not only for Maboane but also for two nearby villages, a total of 9,500 people.

But because of the heavy industrial usage, Maboane’s single standpipe intended for residents is seldom fully functioning, with monthly dry spells and irregular trickling. Every day, men, women, children hitch donkey carts filled with empty canisters. They stand in line, hoping to collect their weekly supply. The rule of thumb is to stock up with as much as you or your cart can carry; five days can pass between the water flowing and, during the rainy season, hurricane-like conditions last for weeks.

“Last September and October, it was especially [bad]. It was raining for two weeks. The borehole had a breakdown but there was no electricity to pump water. There was no water for a month,” said Motshwanaesi Thuto, a self-employed resident of Maboane in his 30s.

When it flows, the water is “unhealthy, and in very bad condition, especially around the standpipe,” where thirsty livestock and children gather around a mucky pool, according to village elder and de facto chief Mokgele Motseona.

“You can see it clearly, we are suffering for the water and we can do nothing. Our government, Jwaneng--they do nothing.”

A representative of Jwaneng’s parent company Debswana, a partnership between DeBeers and Botswana’s government, said the company is not obligated to provide water for the community. “We drill boreholes for ourselves. It is the responsibility of the government or council to drill water for them, so they should forward their complaints to those two," Esther Kanaimba-Senaishe said in the Mmegi in April 2013.

Under Botswana’s National Settlement Policy, any center with a population over 500 is entitled to government provisions, including access to water. Though the country has one of the highest rates of access to clean drinking water on the continent, “access” does include the village’s single standpipe. Moreover, Chief Motseona pointed out that even if the Water Utilities Corporation installs piping in the village, there is not enough water to be pumped into individual houses.

“What is the use of having more pipes when they will be dry, empty?” said Thuto, the village resident.

Diamonds In The Rough

Thuto and area councilor Mogomotsi Makgolele agree that Jwaneng’s production is at least partially responsible for the depletion of water in the area. Botswana’s 1968 Water Act allows mining companies free and unlimited extraction within their perimeters—for Jwaneng, this area includes its northern wellfield, which borders Maobane. Jwaneng drilled an additional 10 boreholes around the village last year, according to the chief, and made an unfulfilled promise to build a school and clinic for the residents.

“They’ve done nothing. We were worried during the drilling period so we would ask them every day how they’re progressing and they say, ‘Oh it is good.’ Now, they’ve drilled and their project is finished. Now, they’re not talking to us. They’ve gone forever. We can’t get a hold of them,” he said.

Debswana and Jwaneng did not respond when asked for a comment.

Three out of Debswana’s four mines rely entirely on groundwater; this includes Jwaneng, as well as Orapa and Letlhakane, which use up more water than is recharged annually. Because hydraulic costs are subsidized by the government (250 million Pula or $2.9 million), companies like Debswana have no incentive to use expensive technology that allows viable long-term use, said Roman Grynberg, senior research fellow at the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis.

To Grynberg, this made sense in the beginning of Botswana’s diamond rush, when there were three mines in the newly independent country and the industry needed a leg up. Now, with one of the fastest growing economies in the world and 16 operational mines (with an additional 12 on the way), the policy of free, unlimited water access “is just not sensible nor is it sustainable.”

“It’s really all nonsense. Mining companies are paying nothing for water now. But that cost is next to nothing for these companies. It’s way too insignificant to affect production, a few million won’t stop them from digging up diamonds from the ground,” Grynberg said.

Botswana’s economy is fueled by diamonds and minerals and these ventures constitute more than a third of the national GDP. For Thuto, this fact is almost enough to swallow the injustice of Maboane’s perpetual thirst.

“Yes, there is so much suffering and problems here. Is it unfair? We don’t see it that way. The diamonds are good for the country. We will do bad so that the country is doing good if that is the way it has to be. If Maboane doesn’t have water, we will be thirsty. But if the mines don’t have water, how will Botswana live?” he said.

Cash Cows And Cash Flows

Thuto believes, without Jwaneng and the mines, the entire country would resemble Maboane and remain the impoverished, undeveloped Botswana of the 1960s. It is a belief shared by many Batswana, including cab driver Onty Bafana, who credits his and his family’s standard of living to diamond mining. A lifelong inhabitant of Mochudi (three hours west of Jwaneng), Bafana counted off the modern amenities enjoyed by the village: a hospital, shopping centers, cars, roads, and running water.

“My grandmother, who is 91, used to drink from the motswetsede [Setswana for ‘natural spring’] here in Mochudi. She used to fetch water from there but now, because of the diamond wealth, we in Botswana have faucets and pipes. I asked my grandmother, ‘would you still drink from the motswetsede?’ And she said, ‘I can’t. It is dirty and full of disease.’ Of course, she only says that because it is untreated, unlike the tap water, and it’s always been untreated, but now she’s used to the tap water,” Bafana laughed.

Water that runs in the pipes of the Water Utilities Corporation is priced according to district and amount consumed, but it is the only type of water that comes with a direct charge; cattle boreholes, communal pipes, and standing bodies of water are all free. Bafana, who owns around 30 head of cattle in a syndicate herd of 700, pays a flat annual rate of P500 ($58.35) for the diesel-powered borehole and the two hired ranchers on his cattle post.

“We can use all the water we want. It is unlimited and provides for our cattle. It is a great investment,” he said. In a year, Bafana will usually sell 10 cows to either the Botswana Meat Commission or local butchers and he makes around P70,000 ($8,169) total. Because managing a small herd requires biweekly visits and maintenance, Bafana is doubtful he would own cattle if the water did come at a price, “It is already a lot of work. If it costs more, I don’t know.”

The majority of Batswana either own cattle or farmland. While some, like Bafana, rear livestock to supplement their day jobs, more than half are subsistence or commercial farmers. The national herd, bigger than the human population, was once the largest sector of the economy.

“Everyone owns cattle. It’s integral to the culture and to many people’s livelihoods. The government has to encourage it. It needs to remain accessible,” Grynberg said.

Botswana’s widespread participation in agriculture has come at a price, accounting for only 1.9 percent of GDP but 37 percent of national water consumption, according to the United Nations. Land degradation and desertification have been noted as early as the 1980s in areas with heavy livestock activity. In some cases, like the region where Maboane is located, more boreholes are designated for cattle than people, said councilor Makgolele.

Water Under The Bridge

Conflicts over water are common: collapsed aquifers, cattle grazing on public lands, and lawsuits between farmers and mining companies were listed Grynberg.

“Everyone—the cows, the mines, the people—everyone is thirsty in Botswana,” Thuto said, gesturing towards the livestock and children gathered at standpipe. “Here in southern Africa, it is all sand.”

Sub-Saharan Africa is perhaps the most water-stressed region of the world and Botswana, 70 percent covered by the Kalahari Desert and without large bodies of water, is certainly no stranger to dried dams and droughts. This year’s rainfall amounts to a little more than the average 550-600 mm in the fertile northwest where water scarcity has led to the death of 10,000 to 15,000 head of cattle, according to the Botswana Press Agency (BPA).

Nonetheless, the country’s physical duress is alleviated in part by its diamond wealth, importing the majority of its yearly water provision. Mochudi, Bafana’s village, is provided by Gaborone, the capital that is home to one of Botswana’s five dams. But, because the country’s reservoirs are depleted through evaporation at a faster rate than through consumption, Gaborone has relied on South Africa for a fifth of its annual supply since the 1990s, said the BPA.

“We can afford to import so we don’t think twice about it,” Grynberg said, noting that water prices have remained unchanged for nearly two decades. “Botswana is in the pariah state category here. We share water, import water, drill really deep for water. So how are we going to pump enough for everyone to drink, keep a large national herd, and expand mining?”

He suggests that Botswana’s “insensible” water usage can partially be curbed through pricing, specifically charging mining companies and other water-intensive industry and, perhaps as a consequence, encourage more conservation. The current practice is to “mine” for groundwater and even the name reflects the exhaustible nature of deep reservoirs and underground aquifers in one of the driest parts of the world. “It’s going fast. Groundwater accumulates in geologic time and they’re certainly mining it a lot faster,” Grynberg said.

Gaborone Dam is now 23 percent full and is expected to be depleted in 10 months, if rationed properly. Bafana said he is unaware of where his and his cattle’s water comes from. “It’s enough for us now. When the diamonds run out, maybe then we’ll worry,” he joked.

The Economist estimates that diamonds will be exhausted by 2030, when the country will have expanded beyond mining only for gemstones. Bafana and many other Batswana believe strongly in the laws of comparative advantage: If the ores keep producing, the water will keep flowing. For Maboane, though, diamond wealth is no guarantee of quenched thirst.

“We are suffering because of Jwaneng and the only thing to do is to look at it,” Chief Motseona said. In clearings between the landscape of thatched huts and desert bush, you can indeed see the outline of the massive diamond mine in the distance. “Sometimes, I think that maybe God is being funny, when we look at Jwaneng and feel the water go by.”

Linda Qiu is the 2013 Pulitzer Center Student Fellow from the University of Chicago.

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Diamond Hopes, Diamond Blues
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