Climate Change v. Botswana’s Waters & Economy

A NextGen Blog post by John Olson, Michigan State University

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

John Olson is currently an undergraduate at Michigan State University pursuing a degree in environmental economics and management. This blog post covers recent harmful algal blooms in Botswana, potential socioeconomic impacts associated with the degradation of its freshwater systems, and links to climate change. It also addresses global responsibilities that countries of wealth have towards emerging countries seeking an economic stability dependent on their natural resources.

Like most of the global economy in 2020, tourism in Botswana experienced a significant downturn. The years leading up to 2020 were promising for many Batswana since foreign and domestic investments were targeting this buoyant industry.[mfn]Leechor and Fabricius[/mfn] Botswana’s diverse, iconic and easily visible wildlife and its prolific natural resources has provided the country an opportunity to make long-term economic advancements.

Okavango Delta, Botswana (Credit: Youngrobv © Creative Commons)

However, this past year’s pandemic was not the only barrier to economic growth in tourism that hit Botswana and its people. Harmful algal blooms [hereafter, referred to as HABs] became more prevalent across the country and degraded the nation’s freshwater resources and biodiversity.[mfn]York[/mfn] Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), which form the basis of HABs, is comprised of single-celled prokaryotes capable of photosynthesis and reproducing asexually, and residing within freshwater and saltwater systems. When large clusters of cyanobacteria form, they cloud the surface water of moderately stagnant lakes, rivers, and streams. Although cyanobacteria are commonly found in almost every type of water reservoir, excessive growth of blue-green algae can compromise quality and overall appearance of a waterbody and can be particularly damaging to surrounding aquatic and terrestrial wildlife.

In recent years, according to a collaborative ecological report conducted by researchers affiliated with the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University and the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, climate change has influenced the growth and proliferation of cyanobacteria in Botswana, as well as on a global scale.[mfn]Gobler et al.[/mfn] Previously, it was understood that excessive nitrogen and phosphorus levels were the key components that led to uncontrolled spawns of algal blooms within freshwater bodies. Now, it is clear that the combination of high phosphorus/nitrogen concentrations with relatively high water temperatures due to climate change warming leads to more frequent and more potent occurrences of HABs. What makes these bacteria so detrimental to aquatic and terrestrial wildlife are the cyanotoxins that are released extracellularly into the surrounding waterbody. They kill off organisms that either rely on the waterbody or utilize it as a source of drinking water.[mfn]Gobler et al.[/mfn]

Toxic algal mats (Credit: Avenue © Wikimedia Commons)

In May and June of the previous year, close to 400 elephants were found dead around various bodies of water in Botswana afflicted with high concentrations of HABs. Botswana is home to the largest elephant population in Africa (approximately 130,000). This statistic drives the ecotourism sector throughout this country.[mfn]ingham-David[/mfn] Although 400 dead elephants represent a mere 0.31% of Africa’s total elephant population, the expectation of higher average temperatures in the future due to climate change indicates that Botswana’s biodiversity will continue to suffer and decline as HABs become more common. 

It is also important to recognize that, to a certain degree, Botswana’s potential for future economic growth is partially dependent on its ability to conserve its abundance of natural resources and spectacular wildlife.[mfn]Botswana[/mfn] Prior to 2020, tourism accounted for approximately 10% of Botswana’s GDP.[mfn]Botswana – Travel and Tourism[/mfn] In 2018, the tourism industry in Botswana grew by approximately 3.4% and added $2.5 billion to its economy.[mfn]Botswana tourism grows 3.4% in 2018[/mfn] Although Botswana is fairly developed compared to other Sub-Saharan countries, it still has a long way to go to eradicate poverty and improve food security for its people.

Parade of Elephants Near Marsh in Botswana (Credit: Ray Muzyka © Creative Commons

Tourism is an important tool for developing nations. Influxes of foreign dollars means even greater additions to a country’s economy. Currently, 9% of Botswana’s total employment can be attributed to the tourism sector.[mfn]Botswana tourism grows 3.4% in 2018[/mfn] Thus, as the potential for even greater environmental degradation increases, Botswana could see its tourism sector come to a standstill as it did during the 2020-2021 pandemic.

To ensure the economic and social security for the nation’s future, the Botswana government must increase its investments in conservation and sustainability, as well as collaborate with other African nations to develop sound environmental policies that will safeguard natural resources of one country from economic activities of another. Developed nations should also bear responsibility and focus on curbing their greenhouse gas emissions to account for negative climate change effects felt by the less developed world.

Tourist on a Botswana Boat Safari (Credit: Vaughan McShane © Wikimedia Commons)

If the global economy is to sustain itself into the future, it is essential that world leaders must respond with greater urgency to how their carbon emissions that create climate change inevitably impact non-atmospheric systems that critically affect weaker economies dependent on their few valuable assets. The health of fresh waterways in nations struggling to institute structural transformation is key to the integrity of their infant economies. As their natural resources continue to be degraded by climate change, countries such as Botswana will struggle to find economic avenues toward long-term development. Without their natural resources, nations such as Botswana will remain stagnant and less able to  support productive, early-stage economic activities.


“Botswana.” Botswana Economy: Population, GDP, Inflation, Business, Trade, FDI, Corruption, The Heritage Foundation, 2021, Accessed 6/15/21 by J.O

“Botswana Tourism Grows 3.4% in 2018.” DeVere Acuma, DeVere Acuma Botswana (Pty) Ltd, 25 Mar. 2019, Accessed 6/15/21 by J.O,

“Botswana – Travel and Tourism.” International Trade Administration |, 31 Aug. 2020, Accessed 6/14/21 by J.O,

Clingham-David, Jaia. “Toxic Algal Blooms to Blame for Mass Elephant Deaths in Botswana.” One Green Planet, One Green Planet, 23 Sept. 2020, Accessed 6/14/21 by J.O,

Fabricius, Mike, and Chad Leechor. Developing Tourism in Botswana: Progress and Challenges. Washington, D.C. The World Bank.

Gobler, Christopher J., et al. “Ocean Warming since 1982 Has Expanded the Niche of Toxic Algal Blooms in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 9 May 2017,

York, Geoffrey. “Elephant Deaths in Botswana Caused by Toxic Blooms in Waterholes Linked to Climate Change.” The Globe and Mail, 22 Sept. 2020, Accessed 6/14/21 by J.O,

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