'Disaster waiting to happen'

Water shortages in Fish River hiking trail
The existing pools are extremely low with a very high saline and bacterial content, leading to dehydration and gastrointestinal problems.
Ellanie Smit
The Ministry of the Environment, Forestry and Tourism will consider whether the Fish River hiking trail should be closed. This comes after several rescue operations have already been undertaken since the hiking season officially opened on 1 May.
Concerns are growing about hikers' safety in the canyon and whether there is enough water to keep the hiking trail open.
Barely a week ago, several role players had to help with a rescue operation of 13 people from the canyon which lasted about 35 hours.
According to Conrad Jacobs, national operations manager for MR24/7 who was part of the rescue operation, they were all hikers from South Africa. One person had a broken ankle, while 12 others were ill. According to him, the walkers were initially part of three different groups that hiked down the canyon and walked about 30 km. Jacobs says the first emergency call was received last Sunday afternoon from their emergency management unit.
"We called South African insurance and medical funds and received no help."
On Monday, there was still no proper helicopter available for the rescue operation and the insurance did not want to pay for a commercial helicopter which costs up to N$300 000.
"On Monday, we decided to send some of our employees from Keetmanshoop to help with the planning of the rescue operation," Jacobs said.
On Tuesday at around 10:00, one of their employees saw a Nampol helicopter flying over Windhoek. The commander of the Namibian police's aviation directorate, Commissioner Florentia Dumba, was immediately approached for help. Dumba in turn approached Inspector General Joseph Shikongo who, according to Jacobs, gave approval for the use of the helicopter for the rescue operation.
Three ambulances had already sent from Windhoek at 04:00 to help.
Help flown in
"Within ten minutes the police helicopter was ready to send two more advanced life support (ALS) paramedics from MR24/7 from Windhoek to the canyon. This while two ALS and eight additional qualified employees of MR24/7 had already left Windhoek at 04:00."
According to Jacobs, two employees of Keetmanshoop had been at Ai-Ais since Monday to help the environment ministry and Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) with the planning of the rescue operation. Around 04:00 on Tuesday, the group together with rangers from NWR walked about 30 km into the canyon to provide first aid to the walkers who were sick and injured.
The medical evacuation operation was completed just before sunset on Tuesday thanks to 12 medical personnel, three ambulances and one medical response vehicle, as well as additional supplies from MR24/7. The operation lasted 35 hours since the arrival of the first officers at Ai-Ais on Monday.
According to Jacobs, the injured and sick hikers have recovered well. Several reports were received of rescue teams having to be sent down the canyon, largely due to the dehydration of hikers.
This has led to several calls for the popular walking route to be closed.
The environment ministry in collaboration with NWR issued a statement in which it confirmed that the hiking trail had been opened after a thorough assessment of water sources in the canyon and that there was sufficient water available for the hiking season. Emphasis has also been placed on the safety of all walkers with water officers to be placed at strategic points on the walking routes which include King Palace and Bushy Corner.
Evaluation to be carried out
When asked, environment minister Pohamba Shifeta said that he is aware of the latest incident, but is still waiting for a report. According to him, an evaluation of the current situation will be carried out before a decision is made whether the hiking route will be closed or not.
Meanwhile, in a letter to Network Media Hub (NMH), Fiona Nichol shared her concerns about what she describes as the "dangerous situation" that is developing in the Fish River basin.
According to Nichol there is a serious water shortage in the canyon and that not enough drinking water is provided to walkers on a daily basis.
"People who arrive later in the day find the water drums left by the water officials empty. The existing pools are dangerously low with a very high saline and bacterial content. This, together with the current high temperatures of 40 degrees plus lead to very severe dehydration and gastrointestinal problems that set the table for possible deaths. Several walkers already had to be evacuated with the help of a helicopter, while several walkers also used the emergency exits," Nichol said.
According to her, there have already been several cases since 1 May where hikers refer to the extreme conditions in the canyon and the apparent lack of planning and overview of the current conditions.
"In a nutshell, there is not enough water. Either they have to provide enough water or close the hiking trail before someone loses their life. It's a disaster waiting to happen." - [email protected]