Between the Atlantic and the Namib

An Environmental History of Walvis Bay
Silverman, Melinda
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€16.50 *
Between the Atlantic and the Namib

Author: Melinda Silverman
Commissioned by the Walvis Bay Local Agenda
Publisher: Namibia Scientific Society
Windhoek, 2004
ISBN 99916-40-48-7 (Namibia)
ISBN 3-936858-68-3 (Germany)
Soft cover, 29x21 cm, 70 pages, several bw-photos

Foreword by Robin Bloch:

Chief Technical Advisor, Walvis Bay Local Agenda 21 Project

The Walvis Bay Local Agenda 21 Project is a three year development project funded by the Municipality of Walvis Bay and the Danish government's international development aid agency, Danida.

The project started in mid-2001, at which time it was headquartered at the municipality itself, and spearheaded by the municipality's new three person Environmental Management Section.

The project also works with other municipal officials and with other stakeholders from the community, industry, and from national and regional government.

Technical assistance for the project is provided by the Danish firm, COWI A/S, and partners, including DHI Water and Environment, and the Danish Municipality of Hillerod.

The project aims at achieving a workable balance between protecting the environment and promoting economic and social development - the real challenge of sustainable development.

The intention is to attempt to assure that the citizens of Walvis Bay continue to benefit from their environment for generations to come.

Accordingly, the overall goal has been to develop a plan and implement practical activities for the environmental management of the Walvis Bay area in line with the Local Agenda 21 approach for local people to work towards the sustainable development of their areas.

In this, the project developed a joint and simultaneous concern with the environment and development. Protecting the desert, the birds and the sea, conserving water and energy, combating water, air and ground pollution, and ensuring that people have decent services and sanitation and are living in a healthy fashion all fell within the ambit of the project and its activities.

The project was tasked with developing an environmental policy (i.e., the lines of action intended to be taken to conserve and improve the natural and urban environment) and a strategy (how this would be achieved with practical activities) in collaboration with the Municipality and citizens of Walvis Bay. Walvis Bay residents, as the project team soon discovered, are proud of their unusual environment, located as it is between the harsh Namib Desert and the cold South Atlantic Ocean.

However, when "environmental management" was discussed, the response was typically to see it as synonymous with "nature conservation" rather than partaking of the broader view above, which emphases the constructive impacts of human action on all aspects of the environment, both natural and human-made. It was decided to build on this interest in Walvis Bay as a place whose people had always been and were still interacting in an ongoing way with their environment, notably its marine and desert ecosystems, with resulting ecological changes that humans have played a large role in causing.

My colleague, Melinda Silverman, was therefore commissioned to research and write an account of environmental change in Walvis Bay in relation to urban, social and economic development, with a particular focus on the post-war era. The surprisingly large amount of scientific and historical work on the area served as source material, complemented by an intensive period of in-person research in Walvis Bay.

The town is often seen as a place of strong wind, blowing sand and malodour. Melinda's report succeeds well in correcting and broadening the perspective. It stands as both a fascinating environmental history of Walvis Bay itself, and as an excellent model for how to portray the interaction of humans and nature in the making of the environments we inhabit and manage.


This report examines the dynamic relationship between human activity and the natural environment, outlining the processes that gave rise to the unique character of Walvis Bay. Constituted by ocean, bay, lagoon, desert and delta, this sensitive environment is subject to changing ocean currents, winds, tidal movements and periodic flooding, forces over which humans have little influence.

There are other aspects of the environment on which humans have a profound impact, however, using nature to sustain themselves and their economic activities through the exploitation of natural resources for trade, industry and production. Consequently this report places equal emphasis on human actions and their effect on this environment. For many centuries these effects were not particularly significant and humans touched the earth lightly.

On a global scale, economic development happened slowly until the 1500s because the world economy developed slowly; because populations grew slowly; and because improvements in productive technologies came slowly. Then came industrialisation, radically transforming the delicate balance between man and environment. According to John McNeill in Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth century, industrialisation has spurred spectacular growth:

- a quadrupling of the world's population;
- a 14-fold expansion of the world economy;
- a 16-fold increase in energy use; and
- an expansion of industrial output by a factor of 40 (2000, xix).

These advances should be evaluated against a 13-fold increase in carbon dioxide emissions and a nine-fold increase in water use. Colonial expansion, which occurred in tandem with industrialisation, facilitated the spread of these changed relationships to all parts of the world in unique and highly charged ways. The unequal division of power between colony and metropole intensified human exploitation of natural resources in the colonies to the benefit of those in distant metropoles.

Walvis Bay's status, first as a colony, ruled from the Cape, which in turn was ruled as a colony from Great Britain; and then as an enclave of South Africa, gave rise to short-sighted policies based on maximum extraction of natural resources. Economic development in the twentieth century therefore should not be read only as a narrative of human progress, even though human ingenuity undoubtedly helped drive this process. New forms of energy, enhanced labour productivity, technological innovation and new forms of social and business organisation, all intensified the pace of economic activity.

But the effects of these transformations were not always beneficial and their social consequences were often unpredictable. This great modem expansion proved both liberating, and disruptive. Surges in population, production and energy use inevitably affected different regions, nations, classes and social groups unevenly, favouring some and hurting others. A local practice in Southern Africa like the contract labour system is just one example that undoubtedly enhanced industrial production and benefited business, while simultaneously undermining indigenous communities.

The sheer size and intensity of the transforming processes associated with industrialisation has meant "that in some instances increased intensities threw some switches" (McNeill, 2000, 4). In a powerful illustration of this point, McNeill cites incremental increases in fishing capacity - in California and Peru - that ultimately caused the total collapse of some oceanic fisheries. This particular example should resonate for the residents of Walvis Bay who in the late 1970s witnessed the dramatic rise, but even more dramatic collapse of the pelagic - or shallow water - fishing industry.

Overfishing during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s finally "threw a switch", nearly wiping out the pilchard and anchovy populations. This in turn led to the closure of factories, severe job losses and the departure of one-third of the town's population. Today's economy, built on the exploitation of Namibia's demersal - or sea-bottom - fisheries could prove equally tenuous if fish populations are not maintained at sustainable levels. Residents of Walvis Bay who are aware of this history are already at a considerable advantage: they realise the need for the sustainable use of natural resources.

The Walvis Bay municipality is currently working to create the context for sustainable development through the Local Agenda 21 process to ensure that development is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. At present the Local Agenda Project is focusing on four areas of activity:

1. In collaboration with the municipality of Walvis Bay, an environmental policy is being drafted to ensure that human needs can be met without compromising the natural environment. A strategy will be devised to achieve these aims.

2. Scientists are studying the coastal area - including the lagoon, Pelican Point and the bay - to gather data that will help clarify the ongoing dynamic relationship between man and the environment in Walvis Bay, and to help the various stakeholders make informed decisions about sustainable development in the future. Some of the scientists are exploring tidal action on Pelican Point, looking at how natural forces could ultimately erode the peninsula, undermining the continued viability of the port, the gateway not only of Namibia but also of the sub-region. Other experts are gathering information about the silting up of the lagoon.

This process could threaten this unique habitat for birds, threatening an internationally renowned wetland and Walvis Bay's most significant tourist attraction. Scientists are also investigating the effect of increasing levels of marine pollution in the harbour as a consequence of effluent discarded by the fishing industry. Such pollution could have negative impacts on fish populations, and the continued health of the fishing industry.

3. Local Agenda 21 is looking at ways to fund environmental protection and improvements by analysing the role that the municipality's tariff system can play to save scarce resources like water and energy.

4. Local citizens, businesses, schools and community groups are being invited to participate in small-scale projects to create awareness of their responsibility towards their environment and to give them experience in protecting and improving it. (Walvis Bay Local Agenda 21 Project, 2000).

There are therefore two challenges for residents of Walvis Bay and policy makers. The first is to measure and understand the rate and direction of environmental change. The second is to think sensibly about how environmental change might be managed before dangerous thresholds are breached by unwitting collective activities. This document seeks to track the complex relationships between humans and the environment in the past with a view to make accurate predictions about the future.

Structure of the report:

The report is structured chronologically. It identifies key periods in the history of Walvis Bay where the changing relationships between human agency and the environment are most clearly articulated. The sections cover:

- The pre-colonial period
- European exploration
- Colonisation
- Consolidation
- Industrial expansion
- Uncertain times
- Annexation to re-integration
- Re-integration and after.

The natural environment is divided - albeit arbitrarily - into:

- Desert
- Ocean
- Bay
- Delta
- Lagoon

These environments and the biota they support are present throughout the historical evolution of the area, but some elements come to dominate the narrative at a particular time, with particularly dramatic effects.

This report explores human agency in three ways:

- An introductory section sketches the broad political background, in so far as it impacts on human engagements with the environment.
- Where human activity impacts directly on the five identified environments, the report examines this activity in relation to the affected environment.
- As Walvis Bay urbanised, a separate section deals with the town as a unique environment in its own right. In the interests of clarity this report constructs some arbitrary divisions, chopping up history into discrete periods, dividing one type of environment from another, separating out the economic and political dimensions of human activity. Such compartmentalisation is problematic in a report that stresses dynamic interrelationships and synthetic analysis. You, as the reader, may wish to integrate the periods.


Structure of the report
UP TO 1400
1940s--! 960s
AFTER 1994-2002