Okavango River bridge captures Botswana’s conservation story

The new bridge connects the formerly isolated eastern panhandle, boosting economic opportunities and social cohesion, says President Masisi

In a momentous occasion, Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi recently opened the 1 billion pula (£36.4 million) Okavango River Bridge in Mohembo.

In 2016, Government of Botswana contracted Italian Company, Itinera-Cimolai Joint Venture to construct the iconic 1.2 kilometre-long, cable-stayed bridge across Okavango River.

The project entailed the construction of 1.161 kilometres of bridge and about 3 kilometres of approach roads, as well as associated drainage, electrical installations and reticulation to the bridge. Part of the works, including roadworks and electrical installations, were reserved for citizen contractors.

The bridge came as a sigh of relief for the communities in Okavango who had spent decades of inconvenient dependence on an unreliable pontoon to cross Okavango River from west to reach ‘overseas’, as the eastern side of Okavango is called by locals.

Mohembo is a village separated by Okavango River having 2,500 people on the western side and 700 people on the eastern side majority who are fishermen eking a living from the river and crop farming.

Speaking during the official opening event Chief of Mohembo Village Paulos Shakova said the ‘freedom’ ushered by the new bridge to the community is unprecedented.

“The days of the sick waiting by the pontoon for hours are over. We used unreliable traditional canoes (mokoro) to cross the river. If this river could talk, you’d hear stories of how many canoes have capsized carrying building materials to the eastern side. Stories of how many people have died, their boats overturned by territorial hippos in that dangerous crossing. Now we can move freely at last.”

Inspired by Botswana’s conservation success, the Okavango River Bridge is designed to represent elephant tusks, paying tribute to the African Elephant. Botswana has more than 150,000 elephants, the majority of which are concentrated in the Okavango panhandle in the eastern Okavango.

Project Engineer Kobamelo Kgoboko told The Okavango Express that the design pays tribute to Botswana as the country with highest African elephant population in the world owing to the country’s conservation ideals.

The Okavango River Bridge design was inspired by the late Minister of Works and Transport Lesego Motsumi. Former Minister Motsumi died aged 67, three weeks before the Okavango Bridge launch following a freak accident that resulted from explosion when she was burning refuse.

“When the project started, Minister Motsumi made it clear she wanted Mohembo to be an icon, not just a bridge. We came with more than seven designs which she turned down until she approved the elephant tusks design,” said Kgoboko.

“This is not just a bridge. It is a special bridge. The late Minister Motsumi’s inspiration to the aesthetics of this bridge has given it character to become a landmark that complements tourism and tells Botswana’s conservation story,” he added.

Kgoboko reiterated that the project was undertaken in compliance with the environmental protocols of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance and UNESCO World Heritage Site, both of which cover the Okavango Delta.

“The protocols stipulate that the bridge must allow water to move freely and that we ensure free movement of wildlife including fish and soil sediments. We have conformed to these requirements. We can safely say this is a modern environmentally friendly project.’’

Eric Molale, Minister of Transport and Public Works, explained that there are plans to transform the bridge construction offices into a post where tourists can watch the magnificent bridge lights at night, as a tourism product benefiting local communities. The bridge also offers opportunities for witnessing sunsets and sunrises over the iconic bridge.

Officially opening the project, President Mokgweetsi Masisi alluded to the positive impact the project will have on the socio-economic outlook of the villages in the Okavango region such as Mohembo, Kauxwi, Xakao, Sekondomboro, Ngarange, Mogotlho, Seronga, Gunotsoga, Eretsha, Beetsha, Gudigwa.

“I wish to take this opportunity to implore the residents of the Okavango region to appreciate that they are the owners of this bridge, and should proudly take responsibility in curbing vandalism and theft of components of the bridge, which is a criminal behaviour that has been observed in other road projects,” the President said.

Masisi stated that the new Okavango River Bridge at Mohembo Village means that there is no restriction of movement for the residents of Okavango, which in the past was imposed by the pontoon operating schedule.

“Thus, the greatest socio-cultural benefit of this bridge is the ease of social interaction and the forging of social coherence between communities on the East and West side of the Okavango River,” he noted.

This article is reproduced here as part of the African Conservation Journalism Programme, funded in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe by USAID’s VukaNow: Activity. Implemented by the international conservation organization Space for Giants, it aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate. Written articles from the Mozambican and Angolan cohorts are translated from Portuguese. Broadcast stories remain in the original language.

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