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Spatial and temporal variation of inundation in the Okavango Delta, Botswana; with special reference to areas used for flood recession cultivation

Spatial and temporal variation of inundation in the Okavango Delta, Botswana; with special reference to areas used for flood recession cultivation
Kobamelo Dikgola


Department of Earth Science, Environmental and Water Science, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, 7535, SOUTH AFRICA.


The Okavango Delta is recognized as one of the famous inland wetlands and its sustainable use is important for socio-economic development of Botswana. The Okavango delta comprises permanent swamps, seasonal swamps, and drylands on islands within the delta and the surrounding areas, sustained by Okavango river inflows from upstream and local rainfall. The Okavango River splits into several distributary channels within the delta. Areas which are flooded annually vary in response to varying inflows into the delta. Peak inflows into the delta occur during the February to May period. Due to the low gradient over the delta, these inflows move slowly resulting in peak outflows from the delta occurring during the June to August period. The inundated area over the entire delta increases from May until it reaches maximum in August and starts to decrease from September, reaching minimum inundated area in the months of December and January. The incoming flood wave into the delta and maximum inundation is out of phase with the local rainfall season.

Communities living within and around the delta derive their livelihoods from tourism, hunting, fishing, livestock rearing, and crop production. Crop production is carried out on drylands and within floodplains. Some of the households take advantage of the increase in soil moisture arising from this inundation along floodplains to cultivate their crops as the floods recede. This practice is locally referred to as molapo farming which highly depends on inundation of floodplains. The availability of floodplain inundation highly depends on the magnitude of inflows into the delta and the local rainfall which are highly variable resulting in uncertainty regarding successful crop production, availability of livestock grazing areas, and uncertainty in reliance on the wetlands resources such as fishing. The uncertainty experienced in timing of extreme events which cause flooding of resulting in water reaching areas or floodplains where it is not wanted, and also uncertainity in timing of low flows, therefore water not reaching some parts of the delta.

Several hydrological studies have been carried out with the aim of improving the understanding of the spatial and temporal dynamics of flows throughout the delta including predicting areas that are likely to be inundated each year. The significant gap addressed by this research is to improve the understanding of the spatial and temporal influence of magnitude and timing of flows on floodplain inundation. Local rainfall on the delta is highly variable over time and space due to its convective nature. This research also addresses the rainfall temporal and spatial variations and its implications on floodplain inundation. The knowledge about spatial extent and duration of floodplain inundation should assist in predicting each year the viability of molapo farming. Three research site, Shorobe, Tubu and Xobe are selected as case studies to understand the dynamics of floodplain inundation induced either by inflows or local rainfall.

Local rainfall during the December to March period enables the crops to reach maturity. The onset of the rainy season is very important in supporting sowing of crop seeds. Local rainfall on the delta varies considerably. Aerial rainfall interpolation shows a change in rainfall magnitudes over space in different rainfall months, i.e different parts of the delta receive different rainfall magnitudes in different months of the rainy season. The spatial variation is mainly associated with the migration of the ITCZ southwards first through East Africa during October and November and down over Southern Africa in December to February. The movement of the ITCZ brings rainfall concentration on the northern and eastern parts of the Okavango Delta during December to January and bringing rainfall concentration to the northwestern part of the delta around February. However, rainfall spatial correlation between stations can be poor even within the first 150 km therefore implying neighboring places do not experience floodplain inundation by rainfall at the same time. The poor spatial correlation of rainfall between neighboring stations reflects the erratic nature of rainfall in the Okavango Delta characterised by localized thunderstorms. Change detection shows change points in rainfall which can be associated with ENSO episodes. A change point is identified in 1976 and 1977 which can be associated with the El Nino episodes during those years and two change points identified in 1999 and 2004 which can be associated with the La Nina episodes, therefore rainfall induced floodplain inundation can also be associated with wet and dry ENSO episodes. Rainfall does not show any significant trends except for an increasing trend on 10th percentile of Shakawe rainfall. Rainfall also does not show any cyclic behavior. Rainfall over the Okavango Delta can be divided into three unique homogenious sub-regions; sub-region 1: the northern part following the GEV probability distribution and being the region with highest rainfall amounts; sub-region 2: the lower northern and the outlet parts of the Okavango Delta following the GPA distribution with moderate rainfall; and sub-region 3: the middle part of the delta extending to the western and the eastern fringes of the delta, following the P3 distribution and having the lowest rainfall.

The main characteristic that defines the Okavango Delta flows at Mohembo is its cyclic behavior. Three significant cycles are identified, close to 10, 20 and 40 years. No significant trends are identified, only a decreasing trend in minimum flows. Change points are identified in 1979 and 1988 and these can be explained by the existing cyclicity since no major land use changes have taken place in the Okavango River Basin upstream before 1989. The existence of cyclicity in Okavango River flows at Mohembo also explains the periodic wetting and drying of different floodplains in the delta. A long period of low flows was experienced from 1983 until 2003 and floodplain inundation extent was greatly reduced, more especially during the 1993- 2003. During the 1993-2003 period, flows could no longer reach Maun Bridge along Thamalakne River, therefore leaving molapo floodplains around Boteti River, Gomoti River and Thaoge River to dry out. The 10 and 40 year return floods are important as they indicate the probability of a flood magnitude which has potential to result in major inundation in the Okavango Delta. Therefore, flood magnitudes with recurrence interval 10 and 40 years have high probability of occurring and can cause major floodplain inundation as they can be above the 2009 flood of 969 m3/s, which was the return of major inundation of Okavango Delta floodplains after a long period of dryness.

The Ngoqa-Maunachira distributary channel of the Okavango River receives 32% of flow volumes entering the Okavango Delta at Mohembo. 12 % of the Mohembo flow volumes reach the Jao-Boro distributary whilst 1% is received by the Thaoge distributary. Therefore more inundation is experienced along the Ngoqa-Maunachira system compared to the other two. Only about 2% of the Mohembo flow volumes leave the Okavango Delta through Boteti River. Long term shifting of flow direction amongst reaches along the Okavango Delta distributaries is evident more especially along the Ngoqa-Maunachira River system. This results in shifting of inundation. Sub-surface water respond significantly to local rainfall and inflows with high soil moisture conditions retained at 60 cm and 100 cm below the ground.