UNE expert called to the aid of an African wetland

Published 17 February 2009

glennwilsonA scientist from the University of New England will travel to Botswana in southern Africa next month to contribute to a program aimed at protecting a unique wetland environment and the livelihoods of its local fishermen.

The Okavango Delta is the largest wetland system on the international Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Dr Glenn Wilson (pictured here) from UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science is helping the environmental managers of the Delta to establish a program of research into the relationship between its fish populations and flood levels.

“Small communities all along the Okavango River are directly dependent on local fisheries for their daily protein and livelihoods,” Dr Wilson said, “and so getting the balance right between human and environmental water needs is critical.”

After an initial visit to the wetland last November, Dr Wilson is returning there in March to conduct a short course on research methods for staff of the University of Botswana’s Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre and fisheries agency staff, and to initiate fieldwork aimed at providing information on the life cycles of the fish species (more than 70 of them) in the Delta.

Dr Wilson, a Senior Research Fellow at UNE, is an authority on the breeding behaviour of fish in wetland areas. His research in the Lower Gwydir region of north-western NSW has helped to provide an understanding of how fish, planktonic animals, water chemistry and wetland plants respond to environmental and other flow releases from Copeton Dam upstream.

“The Okavango River flows from Angola through Namibia and then down into Botswana, where it expands into the huge wetland system of the Delta,” he explained. “The river has the usual conflicts between upstream irrigation/industry use of the water and downstream needs for flooding. Namibia and Angola are still developing their water resources, and considering the use of dams and other water-diversion technologies for irrigation and mining. This would have a severe impact on flooding in the downstream wetlands of Botswana – including their fisheries and ecotourism industry.

“The Okavango Delta is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Africa, with one of the continent’s highest densities of animals such as elephants, lions, hippos, giraffes and zebras.”

“Among other things, this is a great opportunity to test the ideas we’ve formed from research in the northern Murray-Darling Basin about how fish use river flows and flooding in their spawning,” Dr Wilson said.

“It reinforces the fact that, here at UNE, we have knowledge that’s applicable to river ecosystems around the world.”