Hands-on Science

Namibia’s "Biodiversity and Climate Change“ Action Day at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre



The Namib on Africa's southwest coast is the oldest desert in the world. It is known for its vastness and the beauty of its grandiose sand dunes. With temperature fluctuations often exceeding 50 ° C between day and night, pronounced dry periods and frequent sandstorms, the Namib Desert seems to as hostile an environment as they come. And yet, it is full of life. It was the incentive of this year's Action Day for Biodiversity in Namibia to explore this apparent contradiction, but also to understand the importance of the desert and to raise awareness on the threat climate change poses to this fragile ecosystem.

The source of life in the Namib Desert is the coastal fog rolling over from the Atlantic, as a  direct consequence of the cold Benguela Current which flows northward from the Antarctic along the Namibian coast. The fog delivers up to five times more water than the rain and quenches the thirst of countless plants and animals.

But climate change threatens this source of life. Studies suggest that the flow of the Benguela Current might change and with it, the coastal fog would decrease if not disappear completely. That would mean the end of many species living in the region. In this harsh environment, the different species are particularly dependent on each other. Even if climate change has only a direct impact on a few of them, its indirect effect could bring the entire ecosystem out of balance.

Endemic species are already under pressure because of climate change. More and more foreign species migrate into the Namib, occupying habitats and competing for the scarce water. All this also endangers the livelihood of the local population. For example, it might reduce the prevalence of the domestic Narra plant, which plays an important role in the diet of the Topnaar communities, the native tribe living in this region. In addition, toxic invasive plants often lead to disease of the few livestock that the Topnaar can afford.

The Approach

The aim of the national biodiversity action day was to make these complex relationships between nature, man and climate understandable: Climate change requires not only counter-measures, but also requires man and nature to adapt, which might not be visible at first glance.

This year, Namibia celebrated the third Action of its kind. About 150 participants came together on 18 May 2013 - shortly before the International Day of Biodiversity of the United Nations - to get close to nature and to discuss its relevance to humans. This time the host was the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, an internationally recognized institution with headquarters set in the middle of the Namib desert. The Centre's work has been financially supported since 1998 by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). As part of a recently launched project, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) works together with the Gobabeb Centre and other Namibian academic institutions on  "Biodiversity Management and Climate Change". The model for the Action Day was based on the German "GEO Biodiversity Day."

In the run-up to the Action Day, the Gobabeb Centre had organized a week-long Youth Environmental Summit (YES), to which thirty 11-Graders from different local schools participated. Under the guidance of experts and teachers, the young scientists undertook research in and around Gobabeb. Split into three groups, they worked on “Fog dependence of the flora and fauna in the Namib Desert," "Invasive flora in the Kuiseb river bed" and "Reptiles of Gobabeb". One group took measurements of fog precipitation and examined the shapes of the dune grasses that depend on how they use the fog . Another group mapped the vegetation along a river bed to show where which plants thrive best. The third group investigated how the reptiles have adapted to temperature fluctuations.

On the Action Day itself, the students were joined by the Minister of Environment and Tourism (MET), Uahekua Herunga, and by about 120 additional participants including scientists, representatives of Namibian and German ministries, traditional authorities, NGOs and journalists.

The students presented the results of their work in a very creative way using singing, drama and dance. They then led field trips to the project stations. On the way, it was explained how the people living on the edge of the desert made a living, and how they have found a use for many plants, which ensured their survival. Participants received further information at the presentation of a recent study’s results,showing the adaptation strategies developed by the local population to tackle the challenges induced by climate change: As the natural resources become less and less sufficient for their daily lives, new sources of income - for example, seasonal work, but also tourism - are gaining on importance.

Finally, renewable energies were also focused on:  Their use plays a significant role in climate change as well as in the protection of biodiversity. The solar energy system in Gobabeb Research and Training Centre was upgraded with German support. On the occasion of the Action Day, and on behalf of the German Ambassador Onno Hueckmann, BMZ representative Annegret al-Janabi officially handed over the modernized system.

The Impacts

As in previous years, the 2013 Action Day was described as a great success, where learning was fun and enjoyable. Young and old became more aware of the nature surrounding them and learned about the often neglected importance of even small reptiles and insects. They realized how vulnerable the balance of this sensitive ecosystem is and what consequences it has for man and nature, when in addition to an increasing use of natural resources, climate change poses new threats.

During the event, several participants expressed their wish to have the national Action Day for Biodiversity as an integral part of the National Environmental Awareness calendar in Namibia.


More Information

Gobabeb Research and Training Centre: http://www.gobabebtrc.org/

Article on the Action Day: http://www.gobabebtrc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=160:the-iconic-species-for-biodiversity-action-day-2013-&catid=1:latest-news

Article in GEO (German): http://www.geo.de/GEO/natur/oekologie/namibia-leben-spendender-nebel-76042.html