Mozambican Student Leads His Country Toward Modern Water Management (SSAWRN)

Alan Anderson

Agostinho Vilanculos, a native of a remote village 250 km north of the capital of Maputo, counts himself lucky to have escaped the fate of so many victims of Mozambique’s civil war and subsequent turmoil. “It was really hard,” he remembers. “It is still hard.” His mother was a “farmer,” and his father had to seek work in the gold mines of South Africa, seeing his son once or twice a year. Two grandparents were murdered during the fighting. But Agostinho is well on his way toward a rewarding career in research and teaching.

Despite little support at home, he was lucky enough to finish high school in his village and pass the difficult college entrance exam. This won him a free pass to the single national university, renamed after revolutionary hero Eduardo Mondlane. There, remembering the floods that plagued the giant rivers of his home area, he chose to study water management in hopes he could learn something that might help.

After graduating, he won a scholarship to work on an MSc at the University of Zimbabwe, where he met Prof. Pieter van der Zaag of UNESCO’s Institute of Water in Delft. He began to learn resource modeling, and Van der Zaag told him about a new stream flow model developed by the US Geological Survey after the disastrous flooding of the Limpopo, Zambezi, and other African rivers in 2001. The model uses satellite cloud data to predict near-term rainfall, and Agostinho was able to correlate cloud data with flooding of the Limpopo, completing a thesis on the subject for his MSc.

Then last year van der Zaag urged him to apply for a RISE scholarship, which he did, proposing to use the technique on the Zambezi River, Africa’s third largest. This proposal was approved by Prof. Denis Hughes of Rhodes University in South Africa, a leader of the SSAWRN network, who also agreed to be his PhD supervisor. Agostinho has begun learning the complex mathematics he will need to model the river system.

At present, water managers of Kariba Dam in Zimbabwe respond to floods at the last moment, releasing huge amounts of water as their dam is threatened. This forces managers of Cahora Bassa Dam downstream in Mozambique to do the same. In some years this has flooded countless unsuspecting villages in the flood plain between Cahora Bassa and the coast. The dam managers do not believe that satellite data can help them, but Agostinho is determined to show them it can once his model is ready. He also hopes to correlate dam discharge with near-shore fish harvests along the rich Sofala Bank.

He admits that he faces a difficult challenge. He works in an ill-equipped, crowded room in a run-down government building. He has no peers in Mozambique who can help him learn the complex modeling he needs, and gets little support from state hydrologists, who give scant thought to floods until they actually arrive. But through the RISE water network, he now has both partnership and guidance from Prof. Hughes, as well as Prof. van der Zaag, and is determined to demonstrate the power of his newly discovered techniques.