RISE Students Are Among the First Postgraduates at Okavango Research Institute (SSAWRN)

Alan Anderson

Five RISE students have been part of an exciting transition at the Okavango Research Institute (ORI), in Maun, Botswana. As of October 1, 2010, the ORI (formerly the Okavango Research Center) attained the standing of a full Institute of the University of Botswana , and it is scheduled to become the University’s second campus by 2015. The RISE students are part of the first 15-member group of graduate students to work at ORI, after a multi-year effort by research leaders to bring them. “As a researcher,” said Professor Wellington Masamba, coordinator of the RISE program there, “I felt like a fish out of water.”

All the RISE students are working on related aspects of the hydrology, biology, and sociology of the Okavango Delta, the swamp that absorbs the annual flooding of the Okavango River, Africa’s fourth longest. This river is fed by the annual rainfall of the Angolan highlands, creating one of the world’s largest endorheic basins: It is a river that never reaches the sea.

For many years, local lore had it that the water simply disappeared into the sands of the Kalahari Desert. Since hydrology studies began at ORI several decades ago, it is now known that 60 percent of it is consumed by evapotranspiration of plants and 36 percent by evaporation; just 2 percent percolates into the aquifers above volcanic basement rock, and another 2 percent reaches Lake Ngami far to the south, where it supports abundant bird life.

In the Okavango, the annual pulses of flooding support huge numbers of wild animals that in turn attract tourists from all over the world. They also support some 120,000 people in Maun and around the Delta, most of them belonging to one of five ethnic groups and speaking their own local language.

The ORI is still only about 15 years old, and the RISE graduate students and their colleagues have brought fresh energy to the countless questions about the delta. The following five profiles give some indication of the scope of their work, and of the many, often conflicting demands placed on the water and life forms of this remarkable place.

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