The Central Namib Desert is a biologically diverse and ancient landscape, full of fascinating and unique flora and fauna. However, this sensitive landscape also contains rich uranium deposits and increasing uranium prices over the past few years have sparked a rush on these uranium resources. Gobabeb has answered this 'uranium rush' by pursuing a suite of research projects focused on ecological restoration. These projects are aimed at understanding the possible impacts that mining poses to the Central Namib and at making meaningful recommendations for sustainable utilization of Namibia's resources. Through the in-house NERMU, which is tasked with monitoring three of the Central Namib's Strategic Environmental Management Plan's (SEMP) twelve Environmental Quality Objectives (Ecological Integrity, Tourism, and Heritage) Gobabeb strives to research the myriad impacts of the uranium rush and to be a part of the plans to protect the fragile environment of the Namib.
Some of our recent projects:
Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit, NERMU
April 2012 – Present
The Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit (NERMU), is a unit housed within the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre (Gobabeb), tasked with specific monitoring, research and training activities in the Strategic Environmental Management Plan for the Uranium Rush. NERMU facilitates and does research into ecological restoration, monitors the impacts of mines on biodiversity in the Namib and assists the SEMP Office, housed in the Geological Survey of Namibia, in reporting on environmental issues related to mining. Read more..
• 7 team members, including: Theo Wassenaar, Joh Henschel, Titus Shuuya, Michelle Pfaffenthaler, Gillian Maggs-Kölling, Jessica Sack, Novald Iiyambo
Strategic Environmental Management Plan for the Uranium Province (SEMP)
January 2012 – Present
Namibia is currently the fourth largest producer of uranium in the world providing approximately 10% of the world mining output of uranium. While market forces and security concerns influence the uranium market, increasing global energy demand makes uranium an important and valuable natural resources and export product for Namibia.
Uranium deposits in Namibia occur in the central Namib Desert, an environmentally sensitive environment. It is therefore important to balance apparently competing interests of mining and nature conservation particularly in the protected area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and the World Heritage nominated Namib Sand Sea.
The Strategic Environmental Management Plan (SEMP), developed as part of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the central Namib Uranium Rush, is an over-arching framework and roadmap for addressing the cumulative impacts of a suite of existing and potential developments within the Namibian Uranium exploration industry. It comprises a comprehensive set of measures and recommendations to manage and monitor the impact of the Uranium Rush in Namibia and to enhance opportunities and mitigate adverse impacts on tourism, biodiversity and heritage on a regional scale.
NERMU's responsibility within the SEMP is to monitor and report on indicators in three Environmental Quality Objectives (EQO), namely EQO7: Tourism, EQO 8: Ecological integrity, and EQO 11: Heritage and Future. The latest annual SEMP Report can be downloaded from the website of the Geological Survey of Namibia.
RESEARCH PROGRAMME: Sendelingsdrif Ecological Restoration Research Programme (SENEREP)
February 2012 – Present
Namdeb Diamond Corporation is mining a deposit near Sendelingsdrift on the Orange River. As part of their commitments to due process in the management of environmental impacts that may occur because of this mining project, Namdeb developed an Ecological Restoration Plan. The plan advised (inter alia) that a number of research projects should be conducted to provide specific information for the development of a detailed Restoration Implementation Plan. To this end, Namdeb requested NERMU to define two projects that have to answer the most important and urgent research questions. These projects had to be conducted by Namibian Masters-level students registered at the University of Namibia (UNAM) and implemented under Gobabeb’s supervision. The Sendelingsdrif Ecological Restoration Research Programme (SENEREP) was subsequently defined to achieve three overarching objectives, as detailed below.
- To provide Namdeb with ecological information and advice through which the goals of the Sendelingsdrif Ecological Restoration Plan can cost-effectively be achieved;
- To use the rehabilitation of Sendelingsdrif as an experimental platform on which to conduct innovative ecological research; and
- To contribute to the Namibian society by facilitating post-graduate training and capacity building in the fields of restoration and rehabilitation ecology.
• 8 team members, including: Theo Wassenaar, Cornelis van der Waal, Alfeus Cuba Shekunyenge, Lineekela Nauyoma, John Mfune, Ezekiel Kwembeya, Joyce Katjirua and Ursula Witbooi
- Students: Alfeus Cuba Shekunyenge, Lineekela Nauyoma
MONITORING PROGRAMME: Swakop and Khan Riverine Forest Monitoring Programme (SWAKURIFOMO)
November 2012 – Present
The ephemeral rivers of the Namib Desert contain dense forests of large trees, including Faidherbia albida and Acacia erioloba. These rivers and their vegetation communities are “linear oases” because they are critical to the survival of a large part of the Namib's biological diversity. Similarly, the aquifers of these rivers are the sources of water for the towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.
The central Namib is also home to the “Uranium Province”, a region with numerous occurrences of uranium mineralisation. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) study of the potential impacts of mining in this hyper-arid area identified water as a key driver and a critical resource, and defined the potential effects of water abstraction for mining on riparian ecosystems as an important one that should be studied and monitored. For this reason, at least three indicators in the Strategic Environmental Management Plan for the Uranium Province (the SEMP) follow the fate of the riverine ecosystems and the processes put in place to monitor impacts.
In response to this, SWAKURIFOMO is being developed by Gobabeb and partners and includes both large ephemeral river systems of the central Namib and their main tributaries like the Khan River. We focused on these rivers because the Khan and Swakop Rivers are both potentially affected by cumulative impacts from mining, while the Kuiseb is a relatively pristine river system that can be used as a limited reference or benchmark.
The purpose of the initial study is to provide a solid scientific baseline of the ecological integrity of riparian vegetation in ephemeral rivers of the uranium province as this relates to the status of groundwater resources. The baseline results will then be used to identify and quantify indicators of change in the ecological integrity of riparian vegetation, as this may reflect over-abstraction of groundwater and developed into a long-term cost-effective monitoring programme.
• 2 team members: Theo Wassenaar and Titus Shuuya
RESEARCH PROGRAMME: WELCORM (WELwitschia COnservation, Research and Management programme)
November 2012 – Present
WELCORM is a multi-disciplinary research program aiming to understand the drivers of population and individual health of Welwitschia mirabilis (Welwitschia), a monotypic species in the plant order Gnetales. Welwitschia, an iconic feature of the Namib Desert, has a disjunct distribution across its range, with populations scattered from Hope Mine near the Kuiseb River in the south to Iona in Angola. Because it is apparently not a succulent plant (it transpires during the day and does not conserve water like many other desert species) it probably depends on a stable source of groundwater. Initial water isotope studies by Keir Soderberg near Gobabeb suggests that Welwitschia may need both deep and shallow water sources for its long-term survival, growth and reproduction.
Swakop Uranium’s Husab Mine is currently being developed adjacent to the population of plants on the so-called Welwitschia Plains. Although the mine will not directly affect more than a few individual plants, its waste rock dumps and proposed tailings storage facility may affect water supply to a large proportion of the population. The EIA study of the Husab Mine identified six potential mechanisms through which the mine may have significant negative effects on Welwitschia, and defined the need for further study of the factors that may influence both individual plant and population health. The results of these studies should form the basis of a proper risk assessment and an appropriate management plan.
WELCORM’s overall objective is the preservation of the health of the Welwitschia population in the central Namib, including having a scientific basis for management, and improved human capacity. Current studies in WELCORM include a project to map the root architecture of plants growing in different substrates, a Masters-level study looking at spatial correlates of individual plant health, and an isotope study to determine likely water sources.
The studies are described in more detail in the Welwitschia theme
• 6 team members, including: Theo Wassenaar, Titus Shuuya, Michele Kilbourn Louw, Angie Kanandjembo, Joh Henschel, Barbara Curtis, Jacques Berner, Gert Krüger, Reto Strasser, Kathy Jacobson
- Students: Titus Shuuya
RESEARCH PROJECT: Hartmann's Mountain Zebra Project
The Hartmann's mountain zebra in the Tinkas-Langer Heinrich area, where Langer Heinrich Uranium Mine (LHU) is located, are members of one of three subpopulations in NNNP, the others being in the Naukluft and the Kamberg-Zebra pan areas. Preliminary investigations revealed that Hartmann's zebra are found within the mine lease area. If mining activities in the mine lease cause destruction or degradation of habitat features that are key for this species survival, the species continued presence in the area could be put in jeopardy.
• 3 team members: Theo Wassenaar, Hiskia Mbura, Bright Sanzila
RESEARCH PROJECT: Succession in coastal Sperrgebiet vegetation communities
Ecological restoration of arid ecosystems is challenging at the best of times, but a number of natural processes may facilitate the recovery of ecosystems after natural disturbances. In the Succession in Coastal Sperrgebiet Vegetation Communities project, we use identified historically disturbed areas to investigate the patterns and correlates that are produced by these processes. With a mining history going back more than a hundred years, the region has many surface disturbances caused by old exploration or mining activities that can be reliably dated. Our aim is to establish a dual benchmark for restoration: a feasible and reasonable ecological goal (in terms of species composition and diversity in undisturbed habitats) and a deduced rate and form of recovery of ecosystem properties over time. Essentially this will tell us how fast nature heals itself if left alone; restoration should aim for at least this rate or faster. In addition, we may be able to deduce from these patterns the best strategy for the assisted recovery of pocket beaches, deflation areas and other habitats.
• 4 team members: Theo Wassenaar, Jessica Sack, Julien Cloete, Ursula Witbooi
- Student: Jessica Sack
TRAINING PROGRAMME: Gobabeb Research and Training Internship Programme (GTRIP)
GTRIP is a five-month field course for young Namibian scientists interested in the fields of conservation and ecological restoration. From February through June, students work under the guidance of Gobabeb researchers and staff to design & implement independent research projects that contribute to Namibia’s ability to manage and restore degraded ecosystems. Specific projects cover a range of topics within the broader field of restoration, and have in the past focused on aspects such as the ecology of range-restricted species impacted by mining, the recovery of Namib soil surface ecosystems in response to rehabilitation and the functional role of termites in recovery of vegetation communities.
Students learn how to think critically, and are encouraged to read the scientific literature. Emphasis is placed on proper experimental design, data collection and analysis, and oral and written communication.
Apart from the more serious aspects, GTRIP is an adventure, attracting young Namibians with a love of the outdoors. Appropriately, the programme begins with a week long field excursion called GobaBootCamp, during which the participants are introduced to the local environments and basic scientific methods. When possible, the participants also join the Park Warden in game counts or wildlife patrols. less
• 4 team members: Theo Wassenaar, Titus Shuuya, Gillian Maggs-Kölling, Chris Woodington, Meg Schmitt
- Students: Many students since 2009