Environmental Uncertainties and Livelihood Thresholds in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Project: Research project

Project Details


This research will combine insights from both social and natural sciences to understand how variability and uncertainty in time and space impact human-environment interactions. The project will examine social responses to environmental variability, particularly precipitation and flooding. Of interest is how people maintain their livelihoods, and further how these strategies change in anticipation and in response to environmental change. Thus this work will also characterize the patterns of precipitation and flooding as well as their impacts on household farming, household collection of materials such as reeds, grasses, and wood, and individual entry into the tourism sector. The work will be positioned in the international treaty-recognized Wetland of Importance, the Okavango Delta (OD) of Botswana. Nestled within the Kalahari (Kgaligadi) Desert and flooded each year from Angolan highland precipitation, the OD has experienced vastly dramatic changes in precipitation and flooding in the last several decades. This rural area's population is highly dependent on the natural resource base, either directly (e.g., farming, reed collection) or indirectly (e.g., the wildlife-oriented ecotourism industry). It is therefore further hypothesized that these fluctuations have increased people's uncertainty about the availability of water and the timing / magnitude of flooding, impacting their decisions about which and how many livelihood strategies to employ. The overall project research goals are as follows: 1) quantify environmental change in the OD human-environment system, with particular respect to precipitation and flooding; 2) capture the distribution of natural resources over space and time using field-collected and satellite-derived data; 3) map resource activity areas and management / tenure systems to better understand livelihood decision-making; 4) assess how environmental change impacts livelihood strategy selection, and, in turn, how these decisions impact the environment; and 5) evaluate the utility of a human-environment system framework for understanding dynamic systems such as the OD.

Despite the Okavango Delta's high profile internationally, it has been understudied in terms of the impacts of uncertainty in human perception of and reaction to environmental change in livelihood strategy selection. This work will be of practical and immediate benefit to local and regional resource managers. Collaboration with local researchers will facilitate diffusion of lessons learned to area students, from preschool to university-level. Students from the local University of Botswana campus as well as members of the sampled communities will be trained in survey and GPS (global positioning system) collection, marketable skills which will build capacity for both individuals and communities. The Botswana government maintains permit-approved research results for access by relevant government agencies, thus facilitating better resource management in light of environmental change. Further, results will be distributed through the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands through its Scientific and Technical Review Panel (STRP). Technical Reports are disseminated to all signatory countries to the Convention and will assist in making the research findings available to an international audience.

Effective start/end date9/1/108/31/17


  • National Science Foundation: $612,032.00


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