Water supply and the effects of climate change are among the greatest challenges facing Namibia, a huge and sparsely populated southern African country.
"In this region, climate change is so advanced that we were able to work with real, existing facts for our study,“ says Duncan Mitchell, who has spent years working with an interdisciplinary research team at Wits University in South Africa to investigate the changes in Namibia’s animal world.
Mitchell and his team concentrated on the impact that climate change and rising temperatures have had on animals living in the desert.
Mitchell believes precipitation, which is already scarce in Namibia, will drop by another 40 percent because of climate change. “The climate in Namibia will transform into a one big continuous summer with precipitation reaching only 60 millimeters of rain a year,” he says. In comparison, the average precipitation level in Germany is around 830 millimetres a year.
That, researchers believe, will have far-reaching consequences for Namibia’s animal species.
"Initially, it will lead to waves of migration," says Mitchell. "For animals like the Oryx antelope, that’s not a problem. They have adjusted well to the surroundings in the past and can go long distances through the desert without any water,” he says. "But large mammals like elephants, rhinos or hippos don’t have it nearly as easy. They are unable to adjust rapidly and will likely die out,” he warns.
Learning from the desert
The writing has long been on the wall in Namibia. As global warming begins to visibly affect the country's environment and resources, many have started to take action. Hundreds of organizations are pitching in to protect the environment. The Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, for example, established a national youth organization called the Namibian Youth Coalition on Climate Change. Its members do everything from planting new crops in sack gardens to helping install solar panels on village homes and showing farmers how to use drip irrigation systems.
Foreign organizations like ResourceAfrica UK work with local groups on the ground to facilitate an exchange of ideas, experiences and knowledge. They also ask locals to document instances of climate change they see or experience around them, and they make that information available to a larger audience.
All of these projects are banking on the fact that information and education, especially among young people, will make a difference in the battle against climate change. The Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust, or NaDEET, is a non-profit environmental organization that has been educating Namibia’s youngest citizens on environmental topics since 2003, right in the middle of the desert.
The students learn about the importance of climate change, and how protecting the environment should be a part of their daily lives. NaDEET takes entire classes into the desert for a week to raise awareness about Namibia’s most pressing environmental issues - from water conservation to greenhouse gases and waste disposal. The organization holds competitions and games to impress upon students the importance of nature and why it needs preserving.
"The children should understand the concept of protecting nature - not only that they should conserve water, but also why," says Viktoria Keding, who runs the school.
The children find examples of sustainable lifestyle all around them, they just have to open their eyes and be sensitized to the problem, she adds.
“One example in the desert is the tok tokkie beetle. It’s a deep black color, and even on cold desert mornings it gets warm fast,” says Keding. The children are asked about how that characteristic serves the beetle well, and they often find the answer later while cooking together over large, black pots.
NaDEET can take in a maximum of 40 kids for a week’s session. The children are divided into groups and given special tasks for the week: cooking with solar energy, separating garbage, reducing waste production, using composting toilets and turning waste into briquettes for fuel.
They are all expected to slash their water consumption, too. In fact, water is only available in limited amounts. The quantities are written on the sides of the water container so that the children know exactly how much they have left until the end of their visit to the desert. That leads to competitions over who has the most water left at the end of the week. Namibia’s youngest therefore learn to treat water as a precious resource.
Sudden water wealth in north
That is especially important in the country’s parched north where more than half of Namibia’s two million residents live. That’s where researchers made a major discovery some months ago. They uncovered a vast aquifer that lies 200 meters deep in the ground. It’s believed the aquifer, which straddles the border with Angola, holds enough drinking water to supply people and animals in the region for the next 400 years.
Until now, the region had to rely on water from Angola, which was no easy feat. “The water had to be pumped over several mountains and travel more than 150 kilometers in an open canal all the way to Namibia. There were major losses along the way and you couldn’t guarantee that the water was clean when it did arrive,” says Falk Lindenmaier from Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR). He is personally supervising the initial drilling efforts to tap the new water supply.
The Namibian government worries that unauthorized drilling will end up contaminating the precious resource. And that concern is justified: Namibia is considered the driest country in the region, and the discovery of water could spark a race for the precious resource. The basin can feed villages, cows and agriculture but also foreign companies who are drilling for minerals like uranium and gold in the country’s soil.
“What’s needed now is a sensible water management plan even before we start building the first wells,” says Lindenmaier. He believes authorities must put in place a system of sustainable water usage and update infrastructure before distributing the supply. The government has already taken an important step by prohibiting the purchase of land in the region.
Improved water supply and distribution could change the face of the country if the resource is responsibly used and managed. The aquifier could make droughts and water shortages a thing of the past. Though Namibia is rich in minerals, it relies almost entirely on exports today for its food needs. But that could change, says Viktoria Keding.
“If we have enough water, we could grow everything ourselves. Imagine all the energy we could save if we didn’t have to ship in our food from thousands of kilometers away,” Keding says.
That wouldn’t just be a big step for Namibia but an important victory in the fight against climate change.