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The Year of the Invisible Flood

2021 has gotten off to a strange start. Not only is the world still pretty much shut down thanks to a global pandemic, but here in Botswana, we’ve had some of the weirdest weather on record. A highlight of the annual Okavango calendar is the arrival of the flood, roughly around May. Rainfall in the highlands of Angola gathers over 1,200km away, and as a result 11,000 billion litres of water begin their slow and arduous journey south. ‘The Flood’ sounds like such a dramatic event, but the reality is quite different. The water moves at a snail’s pace, spreading out like treacle and slowly filling vast flood plains, hippos pools and river channels. You can race ahead of it, park your car, watch as it oozes out towards you and, in a matter of hours, your local surroundings will be completely transformed into a wetland oasis. Starting at the papyrus and palm-fringed shores of the panhandle, the flood waters spread out into the iconic fan-shape of the Delta. Here it is trapped, thanks to two ancient tectonic ridges that damn the waters. It’s the lifeblood of the Delta, without which the Okavango would soon turn into another great tract of desert. It’s the reason this small corner of the Kalahari thrives and is home to some of the greatest abundances of wild animals left on our planet. That is, of course, as long as the flood continues to arrive.

After the flood.


In 2019, the flood never reached Maun. Poor rainfall in Angola meant that the floodwaters simply stopped flowing and even those places lucky enough to have didn’t have much. These waters should typically sustain all the Delta’s fauna and flora between a rainy season that ends around February and begins around November, just as the floodwaters dry out - but 2019’s devastating drought was also compounded by low rainfall. Hundreds of thousands of hippos, crocodiles and other water-dependent animals died on mass. Crowded into ever-shrinking pools, they were forced to compete for the smallest of puddles as their delicate sun-burnt skin shrivelled under the ruthless Kalahari sun. If you know hippos, you’ll also know that they don’t exactly make the friendliest of neighbours! But for every cloud, there is a silver lining. Life here exists in a precarious balance, where suffering for one is a time of abundance for another. As the Delta turned to dust, there was nothing left for the herbivores to eat. Exhausted, weak and desperate prey were forced to crowd around the few remaining water holes which was a matter of great convenience for the predators. Lion populations skyrocketed in the wake of the devastation, prides were formed and split up and across the Delta predator populations shifted dramatically.


A view South vs. a view North, as the floodwaters arrive.


Everyone had the same doom and gloom predictions for 2020. It was thought that we were entering a dry cycle, as dictated by the El Niño/La Niña effect, and 2019 was just a sign of things to come. So, you can only imagine the delight when an enormous flood graced the Okavango’s parched shores. The water reached Maun and beyond, filling up rivers, pools and channels, and bringing a much-needed relief to all. Herbivore populations bounced back, grateful to feed on the nutritious grasses that developed in its wake. Huge herds of lechwe roamed down south, following the floodwaters wherever they went, and the hippos could once again lord over their enormous territories. Where the water ends up is thanks, in large part, to the actions of three chief engineers. Hippos carve deep pools with their underwater flirtations, while in combination with the equally heft elephant, create channels that direct waters to new areas and deprive it of others. Termites are the final architect, whose colossal structures stand as the only dry areas left in the Delta after the flood sweeps in. 2020 saw new areas flooded and swamps dried out, but there was plenty of water to go around and life blossomed in its wake.


A herd of lechwe pass a termite mound island.


All bets were off for 2021. Graphs in Angola showed abysmal rainfall up north and there were rumours this year was going to be as bad, if not worse, than 2019. Then, in a matter of a few days, Botswana received more rain than we would usually get in a year. From November onwards, huge, bubbling clouds graced an already dramatic sky and so much rain fell that the rivers that by now had dried up, ran again! For the poor cameramen it was an exhausting time, with as much time spent with high-lift jacks as with cameras (unfortunately, the swamp-savvy characters that we follow don’t pay much attention to going down gloriously muddy roads that will happily sink a cruiser). Now we’re in May: the month of flux. It’s the start of winter and end of the rainy season, and it should mark the arrival of the flood – a highlight on any Okavango videographer’s annual calendar. Just take a look at our previous work, from NHK’s ‘Okavango: A Flood of Life’ to ‘The Flood’ for Nat Geo, and you’ll understand what I mean. We would have expected the flood to have arrived by now, but since the channels are already chock-a-block with water, either a) we missed its arrival entirely, b) the floodwaters have skirted around us and missed us , c) the flood reached even less far south than 2019 or, the most hopeful of all options, d) the flood is yet to arrive!

The Okavango 'swamps'.


The flood is what keeps the Okavango alive. Without it, this bountiful oasis would soon turn to dust and its inhabitants lost forever. For 60,000 years, they have evolved to cope with these precarious annual cycles. But today, climate change is a very real and present threat. Whatever the complicated models suggest, there is one thing that’s for sure: it will make weather patterns, both here and abroad, more unpredictable. Hope, however, is on the horizon. Across the globe, world leaders are preparing for the COP26 convention in Glasgow. This gathering follows on from the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, which saw the most powerful people on this planet from every side of the political agenda come together to agree on limiting global warming to 1.5C. It was a momentous occasion, an agreement unlike anything else in modern history, and a huge victory for all current and future generations. So, the pressure is on for Glasgow. You might ask what you can do, sitting at home reading this blog from the comfort of your cosy sofa? Well, there’s plenty. First things first, think about what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. Nobody is asking you to give up anything, rather think about it in baby steps: one less taxi to work, one more vegetarian meal a week, one less international flight a year, for example. While doing all of this, one of the best things you can do is engage with your local councillors and politicians. Ask them what they’re doing to reduce their carbon footprint, what the community is doing, what you can do to help, and what they plan to bring to the table at Glasgow. With the collaborative effort of people around the world, just like you and me, there’s still reason to hope.


Blog and photography by Hannah Gormley