‘RISE Was Like a Dream Come True’ (SSAWRN)

Alan Anderson

Nqobizitha Siziba, a young man who grew up in a family of “peasant farmers,” as he puts it, was fascinated by the natural world around him in Zimbabwe. As soon as he was introduced to biology in high school, he knew he had found his life’s interest. “I always liked to study plants and animals,” he said, “and during my vacations I looked for opportunities to tutor other high school students. This was a way to help people who were interested in solving many problems. And add to that, when I went into towns from our rural area, I saw that pollution and water resources are big challenges for Africa.”

He seized the opportunity to go on to college, at Midlands State University in Gweru, a city in central Zimbabwe, where he specialized in the study of aquatic ecology. From there he moved to the National University of Science and Technology, in Bulawayo, where he got his masters.

After that his progress seemed to stall. “I looked for two years for some way to start on my PhD work,” he said. “No luck. Then I got an email about RISE from a guy who headed the African Wildlife Foundation in Zimbabwe, and I applied. RISE was like a dream come true for me.”

Fortunately, he had not wasted his time while looking for a PhD program. He had found temporary employment as a research assistant at Lake Kariba Research Station, a program of the national university. Lake Kariba, located on the Zambezi River, is the largest artificial lake and reservoir in the world, covering more than 2000 square miles and supporting rich aquatic life. Aside from finding a stimulating work environment, he also met the director, Prof. Moses Chimbari, who would soon be leaving for the Okavango Research Institute and would invite Nqobizitha to join him. Prof. Chimbari and the director of ORI, Prof. Lars Ramberg (now retired), helped him fine-tune his application (“I wanted to work on everything – climate change, water resources, the increasing demand for water”), and he was accepted.

In fact, the final title of his research program – “The Importance of Seasonal Flooding on the Food Chain Link of Zooplankton and Juvenile Fishes in the Okavango Delta” – did touch on his central interests, including water and life. As Nqobizitha described the situation, “The ecological integrity of the Delta is threatened by climate change and by increasing water demand, and these are likely to affect the integrity of the ecosystem. We are studying all of this.”

His work has focused on three types of flood plain: (1) the primary flooded areas that are permanently wet and receive new flood water every year, (2) the secondary flood plain which may be flooded twice every decade by robust floods, and (3) the rarely flooded savannah, which may receive water only once in 20 years during exceptionally high pulses. Previous nutrient research had focused on the primary flood areas, and less was known about the more rarely flooded areas. Thanks to the ongoing study, on which RISE student Kele Cole is also working, the ORI now knows that the flood waters in these areas have more nutrients, released from the plants that have died since the last flood and from animal dung. Therefore they have more zooplankton than the permanently flooded areas, and attract more fish that feed on the zooplankton.

The significant policy implications of this result have not escaped Nqobizitha and his faculty advisors. Among them are that any changes that interrupt this flooding pattern – such as upstream dams that would regulate the flow of the Okavango River and stop or reduce the flooding – would have the effect of lowering the populations of zooplankton in the Delta. As Nqobizitha points out, “Damage to the fish would come next.”

Such ecological links between the water and life of the Delta are just now coming under study, thanks to the much-enhanced research capabilities of the ORI. These capabilities include the 15 graduate students, among them five RISE-supported students, who only began working there in 2009. The advent of the grad students is the result of long lobbying by the leadership of ORI, who argued with the University in Gaborone that faculty can be fully productive only when graduate students are part of the study environment – and that graduate programs are essential for training the next generation of researchers. The productivity of the current group of students is helping to vindicate this argument.