Doctoral Fellow Solving Botswana Water Scarcity Crisis
Goabaone Jaqueline Ramatlapeng can vividly remember when she would go without water from domestic pipes for days. Growing up in Kopong, a rural village in Botswana, Ramatlapeng and her family faced a plight that those in surrounding villages knew as well: water scarcity. And when the water did flow, it was salty.
“This part of my childhood made me develop a desire to venture into water chemistry research and be resourceful to my country in terms of informing their water management decision-making and devising strategies to augment water supply,” said Ramatlapeng.
With sights set on that goal, Ramatlapeng dove into the sciences. In middle school, she competed in the Botswana National Math and Science Fair, winning an award for her research on using Moringa oleifera seeds as a natural water purifier. During high school, her curiosity was piqued by hydrogeology. An interest in hydrochemistry followed, and years later, while pursuing a doctorate in geology at the University of Delaware, Ramatlapeng started studying the hydrochemistry of surface waters in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
“The Okavango Delta is a treasure to the tourism sector in Botswana and the largest freshwater wetland ecosystem of international importance in Southern Africa,” said Ramatlapeng, who is now a doctoral candidate in the UC Davis Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “The Delta is also a source of water and food to riparian communities.”
“My current research focuses on investigating the hydrogeochemistry of rivers in arid watersheds where water scarcity is a major challenge,” she added. “Specifically, I am investigating spatial and temporal controls of water chemistry in the Okavango River flowing through the Okavango Delta.”
Ramatlapeng’s research could help inform the development of sustainable water management policies in the region. For her research and scholarship, Ramatlapeng was recently awarded the American Association for University Women International Doctoral Fellowship and the Schlumberger Foundation Faculty of the Future Fellowship.
“Both awards look to accelerate gender equality in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by supporting women pursuing scientific careers through alleviating some of the barriers they encounter when enrolling in STEM disciplines,” she said.
“I am even more motivated to continue conducting impactful research that will benefit Botswana and also to empower and motivate women and girls from Botswana to pursue careers in STEM. It is also such an honor to be one of the few Botswana female pioneers of water chemistry research and having this opportunity to be supported.”
Pioneering water chemistry
With the Okavango Delta being such an important resource across Southern Africa, it’s imperative to understand what factors affect the health of its waters. Atmospheric conditions are key here.
“The Delta is located in a dry, hot desert environment with high evapotranspiration rates, which increases the salinity of surface water and also results in precipitation of salts on the surface of the Delta,” said Ramatlapeng, noting that local seasonal rains and annual flooding drive the distribution and movement of water in the delta.
Previously, she conducted a study that revealed that in addition to high evapotranspiration rates, water from annual flooding and local rains have a strong, short-term temporal influence over the river water chemistry.
“The seasonal rains and the annual flooding transfer solutes (dissolved ions in water) from the river floodplains and delta wetlands to the river which transports them out of the Delta, a mechanism that keeps the delta’s water resources fresh,” said Ramatlapeng.
Moving forward, Ramatlapeng wants to develop a solute cycling model for rivers in arid watersheds.
“The findings from this research will reveal which processes bring, transform and remove solutes in the Okavango Delta, which would be instructive for water quality assessments and informing water management decisions by the governments of Botswana, Namibia and Angola in the Okavango River Basin,” she said.
Science as home
Though Ramatlapeng initially set out on the path of science to solve a crisis in her home, the desire to find answers — her curiosity — has kept her engaged in its pursuit over the years.
“That is why science will always feel like home to me,” she said. “What keeps me engaged is that one can never exhaust the scientific questions and ideas to explore. … There is always something exciting to look forward to.”
Following her doctorate, Ramatlapeng hopes to become a faculty member at a university in Botswana. She sees herself teaching, conducting research and mentoring future generations of scientists while also working with the public and private sectors to resolve water resources management issues.
Looking back on her journey in the sciences thus far, Ramatlapeng highlights the people who motivated her along the way. She acknowledged her UC Davis advisors, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Eliot Atekwana and College of Letters and Science Dean Estella Atekwana. She also recognized faculty members from her alma mater Botswana International University of Science and Technology, including Professor Loago Molwalefhe, Dr. Peter Eze and Professor Elisha Shemang.
“My family, friends and colleagues have been integral to my success in the sciences by motivating me to continue working hard towards my goals,” she added. “Their support goes a long way, especially since I am away from home, studying in the USA.”
— Greg Watry, freelance science writer for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science