The Gobabeb Training and Research Centre is a Namibian institution of international repute that has been conducting research on all aspects of the desert environment for close on 40 years. For the past decade the centre has been extensively involved in studying desertification processes, and developing and providing training courses throughout Namibia. The organisation co-operates closely with other research institutes and universities at international level.
The name Gobabeb, spelt correctly as /Nomabeb, is a Nama/Topnaar word meaning ‘the place of the fig tree’. It refers to the large Ficus that grows in the Kuiseb riverbed below the station. This particular site was selected for building a research facility because it affords access to the three main habitats that occur in the Namib Desert: the dune sea, the gravel plains and the ephemeral Kuiseb River and its associated woodland.
The first research facility at Gobabeb was established in 1963 by Dr Charles Koch as the Namib Desert Research Station, incorporating the Desert Ecological Research Unit, DERU. Research in the sixties, seventies and eighties was focused on aspects such as climate, ecology, geology and the geomorphology of the desert landscape, and archaeological remnants of early inhabitants. Gobabeb soon gained a reputation for the outstanding calibre of its research, and for its high level of productivity. During the first 25 years over 500 scientific publications on different aspects of the Namib ecology were produced. These led to a far-reaching and thorough understanding of Namibia’s arid-land conditions.
In 1990, the year that Namibia attained independence, the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) was established. The rationale behind the formation of this organisation was the need to expand DERU’s activities beyond the Namib Desert so as to apply arid-land knowledge and expertise to environmental issues in Namibia and the Southern African region.
Gobabeb is situated in the Namib-Naukluft Park, formerly the Namib Desert Park, that was amalgamated with the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park in 1978. The facility is administered and managed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). Up until 1998 the Government maintained and managed the buildings, while the DRFN and its predecessor, DERU, hosted most of the scientists and managed the research work done at the station. Since 1998 it has been managed as a joint venture between the two parties, under the authority of the Gobabeb Trust, and is now referred to as the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre (GTRC).
Focus on addressing desertification
As 97% of Namibia is arid or semi-arid, the body of research generated at the GRTC is relevant to the country as a whole. The primary outcome of past and present research – recognition of climatic variability in Namibia – has been most clearly documented at Gobabeb, and was extended to the rest of Namibia soon after independence. Much of Namibia’s Programme to Combat Desertification (NAPCOD) and the Drought Policy and Strategy emanated from here.
The findings of research at Gobabeb have influenced Namibia’s actions under several important global conventions, including the Convention to Combat Desertification, the Convention on Biodiversity and the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change.
Enviroteach, an environmental education programme conducted from 1992 – 1998, was originally a Gobabeb project. The entire Ephemeral Rivers Project involving research and the compilation of a book, video and large wall map, was initiated at and implemented from Gobabeb. Its conclusion led directly to the recently completed project on integrated management in the Hoanib catchment, and more recently to the Environmental Action and Learning in the Kuiseb (ELAK) project with its broad range of stakeholders.
Namib research contributes worldwide
The GTRC is unique in the SADC region and was logically positioned to become the centre for arid-land training and studies in Southern Africa. South of the Sahara Desert there are no arid-land training facilities, and only a few arid-land research facilities.
In 1997 the Environment and Land Management Sector of SADC selected the DRFN at Gobabeb as the regional lead institution in desertification control. The GRTC’s training function promotes the consideration of environmental aspects in the decisions of SADC member countries, and its training and research activities contribute to poverty alleviation and improving the livelihoods of the poor and unemployed in the region.
The investigation of the Namib Desert has been publicised worldwide through popular media and scientific journals carrying articles written by GRTC staff and visitors. This GRTC function has been extended to the desertification issue in other parts of Africa and the world. Gobabeb and DRFN staff participated in the 1997 conference on desertification in Tucson, Arizona, and made a dynamic contribution to the discussions and field visits.
Wide partnerships in the GRTC
The GRTC’s main partners are the Government of Namibia through the MET and the DRFN. Other primary partners are the SADC Environment and Land Management Sector (SADC-ELMS) and the Topnaar community that lives on the banks of the Kuiseb River where Gobabeb is located. Donor organisations and training and educational institutions from Namibia and abroad are also partners.
Through its work, the GRTC has partnerships with a range of NGOs and government forums, including the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), Namibia’s Water Resource Management Review (NWRMR) and the National Institute for Education-al Development (NIED).
Looking into alternative water and energy sources
An enduring long-term project at Gobabeb is its First Order Weather Station that has been in operation since 1963, with readings taken on a sustained basis at Gobabeb for 40 years. Data is relayed to the National Weather Bureau in Walvis Bay three times a day and used as background data for different research projects at Gobabeb. These long-term observations provide an understanding of the arid climate of the central Namib Desert. A fog-harvesting programme is working towards ultimately using fog water for drinking purposes.
Studies are currently being conducted into appropriate technology regarding water sources and uses of energy. One of the objectives is for the GTRC to become a model site for the use of appropriate technology in arid environments. Current research is into alternative water treatment and recycling programmes, using renewable sources of energy such as solar energy, and local building materials that can withstand the climate. Waste management and recycling innovations will eventually make the GRTC more sustainable and less environmentally intrusive.
Other Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects include:
• Measurement of dune movements
• Population dynamics of surface active invertebrates
• Kuiseb River Vegetation mapping
• Fog collection evaluation
• Welwitschia measuring
• The !Nara Project.
Field courses for Namibian students
Initiated just over ten years ago, the Summer Desertification Programme (SDP) is an intense 10-week field course for Namibian tertiary students and recent graduates. The programme is aimed at providing future decision-makers with tools to address environmental challenges for sustainable development. Past SDPs have focused on topics ranging from basin management in the Kuiseb river system to desertification on commercial farms. The course includes an introductory session in Windhoek, fieldwork, time at Gobabeb for doing data analysis and report writing, and presentations at the annual Gobabeb Centre information weekend that takes place in January or February each year.
Originally part of the Enviroteach programme, Gobabeb hosts short courses for students from education colleges. The day-long course gives future teachers training in outdoor education exercises for science and environmental education. Many university groups visit the GRTC as part of excursions to Namibia and the Namib Desert. Some conduct their own courses independently from Gobabeb activities, others require assistance from Gobabeb staff. Younger students also visit Gobabeb, such as high-school groups, who usually visit the centre for a full or half day. The basic structure for these courses is a nature walk, water conservation exercise and viewing the Namib video.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.