Namib Desert under threat Plan to introduce rail and road to pristine town of Sossusvlei criticized
TILENI MONGUDHI and TIMO SHIHEPO
A PROMINENT lodge operator says a proposal to build a motorized transport and rail system in the pristine Namib Desert ecosystem could threaten the environment and create a monopoly for businessman Laban Kandume.
The area in question is the famous Sossusvlei – which offers landmarks with its red dunes, white salt pan and Dead Vlei – located in the western part of the Hardap region in the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
State-owned Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) has warned that Sossusvlei is part of the Namib Sand Sea – a Unesco World Heritage Site – and that “its natural beauty and simplicity of setting must be preserved “. Major constructions, excavations and mining are prohibited in World Heritage sites.
A showdown in Sossusvlei is expected at today’s public consultation, where the Kandume company is conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and is seeking a clearance certificate from the ministry Environment, Forests and Tourism.
Kandume plans to introduce a train, road network and tethered helium balloons leading to Sossusvlei.
The businessman wants to implement the transport system through his company Sky Eye Hospitality and Tours in a deal he estimates at around N$280 million.
However, this proposal has been criticized by several players in the tourism industry, such as NWR and tourism operators.
If approved, people entering the park will need to do so via the Kandume transport system to reach Sossusvlei.
“Allowing a transport monopoly to Sossusvlei is unethical and will lead to huge job losses,” says Chirstelle du Toit-Oosthuizen, representing Taleni Africa Tourism, owner of Sossusvlei Lodge.
Oosthuizen said this in a submission to Green Earth Environmental Consultants, which is conducting the EIA on Kandume’s behalf.
Sossusvlei Lodge claims it offers direct access to the towering red sand dunes, the famous pan of Sossusvlei, the black scorched trees of Dead Vlei and the remarkable depths of Sesriem Canyon.
Oosthuizen says about 48 lodges near the national park employ at least four tour guides who will lose their jobs due to the fact that personalized tours by lodge-owned game-viewing vehicles would no longer be allowed.
“A rough estimate of 200 tour guides losing their jobs compared to the employment of around 30 staff operating this new project – it’s not really worth it,” she says.
Oosthuizen says the establishment of generator hubs, ticket offices, staff facilities, snack vendors and bars would put enormous pressure on the area itself and on already sensitive water supplies.
“All of the above generates waste and wastewater that must be properly managed and disposed of. French drains would not suffice,” she says.
“Anyone who is familiar with the operation of heavy generator sets is aware that oil spills, diesel spills and noise pollution are part of the whole picture. How would this be properly handled? How would these generators cope with temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius and above? »
Oosthuizen yesterday declined to comment.
The Namibian last year, the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta, unilaterally stripped NWR of its rights to operate shuttle services to Sossusvlei – a venture which earned them over N$10 million of annual income.
This concession was then granted to Skey Eye Hospitality and Tours of Kandume.
The ministry denied any wrongdoing.
The proposed activities will only proceed if an environmental clearance certificate is obtained from the ministry and if all other legal requirements are met.
Kandume has since engaged the services of Green Earth Environmental Consultants to carry out an EIA and an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) in order to obtain an Environmental Clearance Certificate.
“I expect a showdown, and I’m ready for it,” Kandume told The Namibian on Wednesday.
He said the showdown was expected as it is a large-scale project with many interested parties.
“We received a lot of comments. Only a few raised serious concerns. We have to appreciate that people care about us by raising these concerns to highlight what we may have overlooked,” he said.
Kandume said Sossusvlei is one of Namibia’s most popular tourist destinations.
He estimated that the region is visited by around 600,000 tourists every year – between 1,000 and 1,500 a day.
Kandume said the proposed project would solve the current problems posed by a large number of 4×4 vehicles.
“We are proposing a project that benefits everyone. Those using cars can still do so until the road is paved. From there they can jump on our train,” he said.
Kandume said they expect tourism to pick up over the next five years to increase the number of visitors to Sossusvlei to over a million people.
He said the project would be less damaging to the environment than the current situation in Sossusvlei.
The Namibian has seen a written submission from state-owned NWR dated March 29, which opposes the proposed development.
In the letter, NWR Managing Director Matthias Ngwangwama says the company opposes plans to build a motorized transport project, helium balloon and supporting activities because it could have a serious impact on the financial viability of NWR.
“It’s an important source of income that sustains the business financially,” he says.
He says NWR maintains its right to supplement and amplify other objections and comments on this matter.
“NWR was primarily created to operate and provide wildlife protection services in national parks. The company is the focal point for the provision of wildlife services in the parks, including first right of refusal for concessions,” Ngwangwama said.
NWR spokesman Nelson Ashipala said this week that NWR had not been consulted on the project.
“We currently hold the concession to transport customers from the 2×4 car park to Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei, but the consultations before awarding the same concession to another party were not there. That actually should have been the first step in that process,” he said.
Ashipala said NWR will not engage Kandume’s Sky Eye Hospitality and Tours until consultations between the parastatal’s board and the environment ministry have taken place.
NWR said the department’s mandate to grant concessions in national parks is recognized.
However, the granting of these concessions shall not prejudice the legal obligation and the profitability of NWR, as stated in the law.
“Until NWR’s Articles of Incorporation are repealed, the company’s right to exist must not be impaired,” Ashipala said.
In 2012, businessman Lesley Gariseb partnered with NWR to install tethered helium balloons on the edge of Sossusvlei.
They said the move would bring more tourists to the destination.
The Namibian National Commission for Unesco was one of the bodies opposing the move, saying it was awaiting its request to the secretariat of the World Heritage Committee for Sossusvlei to be declared a World Heritage Site.
He said granting permission for the erection of tethered helium balloons would jeopardize demand.