Desert Research Foundation of Namibia: A tradition of providing opportunities

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By Mary Seely

Over forty years ago, a newly established NGO known as the Namib Desert Research Association took on its first student employee to study animal biodiversity in the sand dunes of the Namib. Thus started a tradition of providing opportunities for hands-on experience and learning, with a focus on understanding Namibia’s arid environment. How better to contribute to conservation and sustainable development than by involving young people in the process, since the future lies in their hands. It is they who will use and manage, wisely or otherwise, Namibia’s diverse environment for our people’s sustainable development.

Namibia is an arid country, the most arid south of the Sahel. Its entire coastline is classified as hyper-arid, as is the heart of the Namib Desert, after which the country is named. What better place to learn about the characteristics of aridity and how these systems function? The Namib Desert is renowned for its great variety of beetles, reptiles and unique selection of highly adapted birds and plants. Even more challenging, how can this knowledge be used to better understand, use and manage natural resources sustainably throughout Namibia?

Checking plants

Fog moisture

Over the years students living and working at what is now known as the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre in the central Namib Desert have unravelled many unusual stories. These stories are tantalisingly incomplete, leaving much space for other students to take the studies further. One example is the valuable coastal fog. An early explanation for the very high diversity of invertebrates in the Namib Desert was the presence of fog moisture. As a result, PhD students, MSc students, summer-vacation students and students undertaking short-term high-school projects have all studied this weather phenomenon and its relationship to the structure and functioning of the desert. What causes the unusual pock-marked weathering patterns of granite inselbergs, for example? Fog provides moisture for salt to leverage the rock crystals apart, little by little.

Why the great diversity of lichens growing on outcrops, on coastal gypsum plains, on trees? Students from around the world have measured moisture uptake, growth patterns and species diversity and found that they are all related to fog. How do desert plants use fog? Students have used techniques as sophisticated as physiological measurements of pressure in plant stems and isotopic assessment of quantities and rates of fog-water uptake or as simple as plotting plant distribution related to fog-water precipitation. Likewise, how do desert animals use fog? Students working in the Namib sand dunes have discovered beetles that construct fog-harvesting sand trenches, beetles that stand on their heads for fog to precipitate on their bodies, enabling them to drink the drops, ants that suck fog water from sand grains, reptiles that lick fog droplets off their own bodies, and groups of beetle species whose overall population numbers are maintained by the presence of fog.

How can people living in this desert take advantage of such an abundant source of water? Students have invented fog-catching nets, they’ve measured the fog’s frequency and occurrence, they’ve measured its quality for drinking and found it potable and they know, for example, that up to 16 litres of water per day can be collected from one metre square of fog netting. It only awaits more creative students to develop this sustainable source of water further.

Rainfall variability

While fog is a phenomenon at the coast, low, highly variable rainfall occurs throughout Namibia, with the greatest variability in the desert. Based on understanding gained in the desert, principles for living in a variable environment have been developed, applied and investigated further throughout Namibia. To better illustrate this variability, a small group of students spent 10 weeks over the summer of 1992/3 preparing a ‘rainfall range map’ based on extensive data from the meteorological services. Instead of depicting the irrelevant but usual ‘mean rainfall’, this map illustrated the wide range of rainfall that could be expected in 90% of all years.

For Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, the normal range extends from 179-587 mm – so we know that 2006 was way above average. This map was printed and taken up by the Namibian Agricultural Union and duplicated for circulation amongst farmers in Namibia. It also found its way into many government offices throughout the country. In this way the Summer Desertification Project was initiated, providing hands-on field training for students from the University and Polytechnic of Namibia and the Agricultural Colleges to address current, relevant environmental challenges. The programme continued for thirteen years.

Water usage

Who, how, where and for what is water used along the ephemeral Kuiseb River, the source of water for our main harbour Walvis Bay and other coastal towns? Surprising to all was the student’s findings that a relatively small amount of water was held back by commercial farms in the upper catchment but that the highest per person water usage was taking place at the very training centre from whence the study arose. Needless to say, this resulted in many changes, which include a trickle filter recycling more than 90% of the water used on site and currently being studied, a decade and a half later, by another generation of students for agricultural application. As a result of these hands-on studies, the Gobabeb Centre is now a model for water-use efficiency, which it combines with renewable energy and energy efficiency applications. These applications are now being duplicated elsewhere in Namibia, supported by innovative training programmes. This is a major outcome from meagre beginnings.

Meanwhile, the Kuiseb River was revisited by two groups of students towards the turn of the millennium. Where does water enter the system, where is it taken out of the system, how is it stored and used and how much is being lost? One year the student groups, now fifteen strong, investigated the water balance of different portions of the water course and the following year they learned to survey and then measured farm dams to sort out the perception that these dams were holding back valuable resources from lower river consumers.

Set in the context of the nascent Kuiseb Basin Management Committee and building on available data, major points of contention were clarified. Years later, as the Agriculture Minister’s interest focused on the Omaruru River, a similar study was undertaken there. These activities not only supported Government’s draft water resources management bill but also contributed to greater understanding of water resource dynamics, availability and use in a normally dry river such as the Kuiseb or Omaruru. These are two of twelve major ephemeral rivers that drain the interior of Namibia and flow toward the sea. Meanwhile, details of these twelve rivers were described in yet another student project with several major publications resulting.

Student research projects

In 1996, Namibia had ratified the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. A major question arising in arid, western Namibia was how to distinguish between long-term land degradation and short-term rainfall variability? Adding the differential impact of elephants on communal farmers and commercial tourism activities to the question provided interesting projects for two student groups. Asking similar questions, another two groups travelled north and investigated the environmental impact of illegal fencing on communal farmland and the different economic values of similar natural resources in a woodland and a grassland farming area. All these questions, and the preliminary answers provided by the students, had and still have relevance to Namibia’s sustainable development. At the same time, the students learned a great deal.

Continuing to focus on the north, questions asked included: what is the least expensive way to provide water for livestock in the southern Cuvelai Delta area? The ideas became focused on the question of who would pay this cheaper price. Yet another question asked was what system could individual Water Point Committees use to monitor and manage their own water use more efficiently? And thus a local-level water-monitoring system was created. On another northern summer study, management of fruit trees on farms again produced surprising, counter-intuitive results. While extensive deforestation was taking place in grazing areas and clearing land for new fields, within people’s individually owned farms indigenous species were being specially protected and their numbers were increasing. There is no end to current, relevant development questions for which student groups, working with the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, have capacity to provide at least partial, usually surprising, answers.

Promoting understanding

Today, environmental education is the focus of a wide variety of institutions located everywhere in Namibia, from the Namib Desert to the Kalahari, from the shores of the Okavango River to those of the Orange, and many places in between. These represent stepping stones toward enhanced understanding for conservation and sustainable development. Some have a focus on protection of a single species of a charismatic animal, while others are looking towards increased food production and income generation for Namibia’s rural poor. All are playing a role, in one way or another, in increasing people’s understanding of conservation and the functioning of our arid environment and hence contributing to Namibia’s sustainable future.

This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.




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