Studying the Jewel of the Kalahari: Doctoral Candidate Receives Funding to Further Water Chemistry Research in Okavango Delta
A National Geographic Society Explorer and UC Davis Earth and Planetary Sciences doctoral candidate investigating the water chemistry of Botswana’s Okavango Delta recently received $100,000 from the National Geographic Society for her Wayfinder project in the region.
For the past five years, Goabaone Jaqueline Ramatlapeng has studied the water chemistry of the Okavango Delta, the largest freshwater wetland in southern Africa. Due to its stunning biodiversity and its location in an otherwise semi-arid landscape, the region is known as the “Jewel of the Kalahari.”
The Okavango Delta is “an oasis in the middle of the Kalahari Desert that hosts a rich ecosystem of flora and fauna, and supports the livelihood of nearby communities,” said Ramatlapeng, while noting that water flow in the area is highly variable and “primarily controlled by rains and an annual flood pulse from the upper watershed in Angola.”
But as the world’s environments shift due to climate change, so too does the Okavango Delta. According to researchers, increasing dryness in the region impacts the rivers, increasing the salinity of the soil, which in turn affects water quality and ecological functioning.
Historically, studying the water chemistry of the Okavango River has been difficult due to the high variability in river flow. Pair that with the pronounced effects of evapotranspiration — loss of water from both evaporation and transpiration by plants — and you have an unpredictable system.
But Ramatlapeng has proposed a high-frequency, long-term monitoring project to gauge the river’s water chemistry. She plans to collect water measurements — tracking water temperature, water level and conductivity, along with collecting river water samples at 10 different stations positioned along the river. The hope is that this high-frequency approach will help researchers better assess processes occurring at various time scales, from sub-daily to seasonal.
“The funding gives me an opportunity to study the shifts in the water chemistry of the Okavango Delta at a higher temporal and spatial resolution, a much-needed approach that will allow us to constrain the Okavango Delta’s chemistry ‘heartbeat,’” said Ramatlapeng. “I am excited for the anticipated findings because they will give us an in-depth understanding of the processes that control the changes in the water chemistry of rivers and inland deltas in arid environments.”
Ramatlapeng is also particularly excited to kickstart the project because it pushes beyond performing science. There’s also a science communication component.
“The project will be used as an opportunity to demystify science and break the knowledge barrier between the Delta communities and scientific research that is created by lack of science translation,” she said. “It is imperative to ensure that these communities who are the guardians of the Delta understand the research conducted in the Delta and its significance and how their rich Indigenous knowledge has been instrumental in keeping the Delta pristine.”
Ramatlapeng thanked her academic mentors Professor Eliot Atekwana, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Estella Atekwana, dean of the College of Letters and Science, for their unwavering support during her research journey.
To learn more about Ramatlapeng and her journey in the sciences, check out our previous articles about her.