Sandwich Harbour – a dehydrated oasis?

Many visitors to Namibia have heard of the myths and legends surrounding the historically important wetland at Sandwich Harbour. A lagoon steeped on one side by one-hundred-metre tall dunes, cooled by the roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Shipwrecks, treasures, abundant wildlife, inaccessibility… Sandwich has it all.

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Above: The remaining wetland at Sandwich Harbour on a day when the sea was particularly rough.

As one of the few places along the Namibian coastline that had perennial water, Sandwich became an important, if remote, stopover for both local Khoi people and European sailors from the 19th century onwards. A small settlement grew and Sandwich had numerous houses, a meat cannery and plentiful freshwater.

Yet the sands of time and waves of change (both idioms in this case seem unusually appropriate) have drastically altered this wetland. The relentless winds have resized, reshaped and repositioned the dunes. The sea and the currents have eaten away the shore and deposited sand in other parts. It has to be one of the most dynamically changing ecosystems in the world.

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Above: Ruins at Sandwich Harbour – this particular building was a former lodging for Ministry of Environment officials. 

Yet the one change not entirely dictated by the natural shifts of the Namib may be the most critical. The wetland, so long a magnet for all form of life in the area, is quickly disappearing. In times gone by, Sandwich’s freshwater came from an aquifer fed by the ephemeral Khuiseb River flowing under the dunes and resurfacing at Sandwich Harbour before it reached the sea. A similar system occurs at Conception Bay fed by the Tsondab River and at Meob Bay fed by the Tsauchab River further down the coast. Very little freshwater remains – nothing compared to the quantity that justified the building of a settlement at Sandwich.

It appears the underground water reserves are drying up. Sandwich Harbour is the most obvious example because its close proximity to Walvis Bay allows for more visits on a regular basis. Additionally, the wetland’s historical importance has meant a greater body of literature and popular memory of the area exists, making Sandwich the most visible victim of indirect water mismanagement.

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Above: The saltwater section of the lagoon. This is by far the largest section of the lagoon nowadays.

The population growth along the coast, especially at Walvis Bay, is a factor. More water is also needed to satisfy the demand for the industrial growth set to happen at Walvis Bay harbour. The water obtained for the urban areas is mostly drained from the Khuiseb River. As a result the freshwater lagoon at Sandwich is becoming smaller due to groundwater extraction upriver by the town of Walvis Bay.  Another extractor is becoming more prominent: a recent and significant increase of lodges and growing settlement on the border of the Namib Naukluft National Park, especially around the tourist hub at Sossusvlei. This phenomenon is also visible when one looks at the water quantity (or lack thereof) at Conception Bay and Meob Bay, which are supplied by the Tsondab and Tsauchab aquifers respectively.

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Above: The remaining vegetation is fed by the small amounts of brackish water that surface at the lagoon.

Undoubtedly the increase of tourism has brought prosperity to lodge owners, national parks and the Namibian economy. But the building of infrastructure and accommodation to cater for the increasing traffic of tourism and other travellers to the Namib Naukluft area is putting immense strain on the already meagre aquifers. Not enough water is being allowed to seep under the dunes to replenish the coastal wetlands and the wildlife they support.

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Above: A map showing the catchment areas and aquifers of Namibia.

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Above : A zoomed-in image of the map showing Conception Bay, Sandwich Harbour and Meob Bay and their corresponding catchment aquifers. The big blue arrows indicate the water seepage under the dunes.

(Source: Ben Strohbach. Mapping the Major Catchments of Namibia. National Botanical Institute)

The precedent is thus: how does one regulate the amount of water that lodges can draw from aquifers outside the Namib Naukluft National Park before the water moves into a protected area? And while there seems little to lose other than the largely inaccessible wetlands in the Namib dune belt in this case, how will the Namibian government respond when other, more serious clashes of water interests come into play if it has not been able to protect the wetlands at Conception Bay, Meob Bay or Sandwich Harbour? What will happen if, for argument’s sake, the next national park to fall victim to water or aquifer mismanagement is the Etosha National Park?

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Above: Flamingoes are just one of the many species of birds that can be found at Sandwich due to the ecosystem that has been present there for hundreds of years.

In the meantime, the coastal operators that fill their Land Rovers with hundreds of tourists each year and drive to Sandwich Harbour will increasingly have tell yarns of what this famous wetland used to look like. Only time will tell how long the freshwater and the ecosystem it supports will last – but if rules around water usage and regulations are not clearly defined in the law books or communicated to developers in the very near future, entire ecosystems on the Namib Naukluft coast could be under severe threat.

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