Transboundary Cooperation in the BuPuSa Basin

Zoe Rosenblum, 2nd Year Geography PhD Student

“Go build partnerships.” This is the assignment that I received from my advisor when our collaborators invited us to tour our study area and present a joint session at the WaterNet 2022 Conference in South Africa.

My advisor could not make it because he had to meet with the Dalai Lama (what an excuse!).

My journey started with the 1:50 AM Groome shuttle to PDX on October 4. Too many hours later, after risking health on flights that no longer require passengers to wear masks, I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa at about 6:30 PM local time on October 5. I was greeted at the airport by a young man holding a sign with my name on it, and we discussed foods, languages and jobs on the short drive to my hotel in Pretoria. The hotel lobby was crowded by a Mozambican youth gymnastics team who had a competition nearby. I checked in with ease and then, too tired to eat, showered and headed to bed with the lullaby of cars honking melodically to the beat of the music blasting at the corner market.

Sunrise in Pretoria

My first day in the country, I walked to our partners’ offices and was delighted to find that Global Water Partnership and International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the two organizations I work with on a transboundary rivers project, have offices side-by-side in the same building. They hosted a delicious lunch catered by a local restaurant, as a way of welcoming their partners (colleagues also joined from IUCN Headquarters in Switzerland). As soon as we sat down to eat, the ideas started rolling out:

“You must not let my colleague forget to tell you about our idea to send students from the basin to study at OSU.”

“Can we publish a book on the basin?”

“You must come back again and bring Aaron.”

So, on Day 1 I learned the hospitality of my hosts, the importance of meeting in-person to informally discuss project ideas, and the cultural significance of eating in someone’s home (or office) before discussing business.

All smiles after a productive kick-off meeting. Photo credit: Leticia Ngorima, GWPSA.

The next day, seven of us flew from Johannesburg to Harare, and then drove in two rental cars to Mutare, the third largest city in Zimbabwe, a few kilometers from the border with Mozambique. Here we had two packed days of touring the transboundary basins through the eyes of the Catchment Managers and Hydrologic Engineers that work for the Zimbabwe National Water Authority. There are three river basins we focus on: the Buzi, Pungwe and Save Basins, known together as the BuPuSa Basin.

Map from USAID showing transboundary river basins in the area; the BuPuSa basin is the most northeast.

Perhaps I should take a moment to recognize that I am a geographer with a captive audience. Check out this map! River basins are outlined in dark blue. Notice how they pay no mind to the very straight dashed black lines that denote country borders? European colonizers generally did not consider ecosystems when drawing country borders. The work of transboundary water cooperation is to bring together countries that share water resources to share the burdens and benefits of water management. The BuPuSa Basin spans Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The project with GWP and IUCN centers around strengthening capacity of the two countries to establish protocols for sharing data, water, and more.

Save River at Birchenough Bridge, Zimbabwe.

From Mutare we drove south to the Save River, where we observed low flows (it was the end of the dry season) and sedimentation. It’s hard to imagine the flooding event described by engineers which washed away eight bridges in the basin. Much of the basin tour focused on visiting places where the floodwaters washed away monitoring equipment, bridges, and even houses and humans.

Copa Village, Zimbabwe, 2022

Two key observations of the river. The obvious one was the heavy siltation and turbidity, caused by illegal gold panning upstream. The second observation was not so obvious to me. This part of the river looks like many in Oregon – a river channel dotted by boulders. However, in Oregon, the boulders were washed down by the Missoula Floods. In Zimbabwe, such a site is unusual. The boulders were washed down river by floods in the wake of Cyclone Idai. With the floodwaters, houses and hundreds of people were washed away as far as into Mozambique.

Project partners in the basin are improving monitoring and developing early warning systems for such flooding. Now, water level dataloggers send an automatic alert to an engineer’s phone when certain flow thresholds are reached, and the engineer then alerts a WhatsApp group that includes engineers on the Mozambican side to warn of flash flooding potential. These dataloggers are located at multiple sites, so the engineers can measure how fast the floodwaters are moving. Improvements may include a more reliable battery/power system for the dataloggers, raising awareness about flood risk and preparedness, and installing flag systems to communicate river level and flood warnings.

The next day we traveled north to the source of the Pungwe, where, we were told, the water is clean enough to drink. My observation of the surrounding monocultures of banana, avocado and macadamia left me skeptical of this statement, but I did reach down and touch the water, and could certainly imagine cooling off in the river on a hot day.

Team discussion on the bank of the Pungwe River.
Banana plantation near the Pungwe River.
Fun fact: past hydrologists used this zipline to measure the flow of the river, carrying heavy equipment and dangling it down into the river – pretty risky! Also, this is about as close as I got to Mozambique (it’s just across the river) during the trip.

After a week of tours and meetings in Zimbabwe, we returned to South Africa for our engagement at the WaterNet Conference. The conference presents research and projects from across the Southern African Development Community, drawing together policymakers, academics and practitioners. Our session reflected on the use of data in transboundary water negotiations. Highlights of our session included engaging keynote addresses from Dominic Mazvimavi, Professor Emeritus at the University of the Western Cape and Professor Melissa McCracken from Tufts University, an insightful panel discussion, a presentation of the Transboundary Freshwater Diplomacy Database by CEOAS Ph.D. candidate Alexandra Caplan, and stories of data challenges in the BuPuSa Basin from Mr. Elisha Madamombe, Regional Coordinator for the BuPuSa Project at GWPSA. You can learn more about this topic in a blog about our online training with GWP, which we held the morning after my return to the US.

Co-facilitating our joint session with GWP and IUCN at WaterNet 2022.

There were many more aspects of the trip I would love to share. The observation that informal environments often are the best for productive discussions. How well my partners took care of me in the region – Pinnie guiding me through a questionable border crossing, Tariro stopping every 20 minutes for me to vomit on a long drive when I had food poisoning, Cebo making all of my transitions between hotels and airports as easy as possible. Ask me anything. I’ll leave you with these photos of South African wildlife and signage about water:

Is South Africa running out of water? If you’re confused by this question, just Google “Cape Town Day Zero” to learn a little. I will say, all of the hotels I stayed in Johannesburg area had signs like this one about reducing water consumption. However, none of the places I stayed in Cape Town had such signs. While one Uber driver told me there is definitely a water crisis and that a project is being considered to pipe water from Zimbabwe to South Africa, another driver casually assured me, “There is no water shortage here.”

Building Community

by Ashley Peiffer, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management

In the foreground, a school garden built by my community counterpart and fellow science teacher, Iddi. My tin-roofed house is in the background and Mshangai village lies in the valley below.

Upendo is the Swahili word for “love” and the name of one of my best friends in the Mshangai village of Tanzania where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2017-19. When I first arrived in Tanzania, I thought I knew what the village needed. It was only after getting to know my neighbors, like Upendo and her daughter, Rosie, that I realized my role as a volunteer was to drop all my preconceived notions and become part of the community first. Over the two years I spent in Mshangai, Upendo and Rosie taught me how much time and upendo it takes to build relationships and a sense of community. When I came back home to start my master’s degree at Oregon State University, I used those lessons, discovering that even without being physically present in a community, it’s still possible to maintain meaningful relationships with people across the globe.

Upendo, Rosie and I dressed up in our best batik (a hand-dyed fabric) for a local wedding.

One of the first moments I recognized that working in the village had nothing to do with imposing ideas of what “should” be and everything to do with building relationships was when Upendo started asking me to babysit Rosie. The simple gesture of asking me to fill a role that was normally taken by other women in the community brought me the humbling, heart-opening feeling of belonging. I found a deep sense of joy through the connections I made while taking on tasks such as babysitting, washing dishes with other women at local events, and chatting with village Bibi’s (“grandmas”) in an attempt to learn the three local dialects in my area that were often meshed with Swahili. Staying present in these day-to-day activities helped me to build meaningful relationships and listen to the concerns of my friends.

I often carried Rosie around the village center so she could avoid the mud with her bare feet.
One of my favorite pastimes: Chatting with my neighbor, Mama Sophia, and her sister near a shop in the village.

Without taking the time to get to know my neighbors, I would have never discovered that a major concern of the community was the amount of time girls and women missed out on their daily activities due to a lack of menstrual hygiene products. Nearing the end of my time as a volunteer, I found myself knee-deep in grant writing and event planning to host health seminars for hundreds of students and women in the community with my friend and fellow teacher, Rachel. We planned three seminars to teach about sexual and reproductive health and give away reusable menstrual pad kits from the HURU (“Freedom”) International program.

Rachel and I often wore matching khangas (colorful cloth printed with Swahili idioms) for community events.

On the last day of the event, my friends from Mshangai and nearby villages came to receive their HURU kits, some walking over 5 miles one way just to reach the event. I was moved to tears by the community of women gathered with me. I held Rosie as Rachel gave the health lectures and all of the women, including my dear friend Upendo, took notes and asked questions. After the seminar, girls and women from the community paraded around the village with their colorful HURU kits, and Rachel saved the extras and all the education materials for incoming classes of students in future years.

Secondary school girls jotting down notes during a HURU seminar. Rachel and I hand-made the educational posters on the walls around the classroom.
Keeping one eye on Rosie while Rachel explains what would be found inside each HURU kit: reusable menstrual pads, underwear, and soap.
Secondary school girls proudly showing off their new HURU kits! 

The importance of community remains a focus of my life and a source of inspiration for my master’s thesis. Through the Marine Resource Management program and my advisor, Dr. Michael Harte, I was connected with the non-profit Secure Fisheries, a program of One Earth Future focused on empowering coastal communities in the Somali region to sustain and manage their fisheries resources and promote peace-building. Their work includes developing cooperative fisheries management in coastal communities, creating a system of region-wide catch data collection in partnership with universities and governments, and enhancing fisheries value chains to ensure communities derive as much value as possible from their fisheries resources. With staff located in both the Somali region and the United States, Secure Fisheries uses both community knowledge and scientific research to boost local capacity for fisheries management.

Photo from a Secure Fisheries’ hosted oceanographic mapping exercise in a Somali coastal community.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought my initial research plans– a gender and small-scale fisheries project in the Somali region–to a standstill. While in quarantine, I realized much of Secure Fisheries’ field work was significantly delayed because of the pandemic. Even so, staff members on both sides of the globe found creative ways to continue and even improve ongoing projects by switching to remote communication with communities and collecting GPS fisheries data. I was inspired by how the organization maintained strong relationships within communities, even with our new norm of social distancing. This inspiration led me to change my thesis research. I wanted to understand how Secure Fisheries and similar organizations adapted to extraordinary circumstances alongside the communities they work in, sustaining relationships with communities they could no longer visit in-person. 

Living and working in Tanzania allowed me to learn first-hand how building trust and relationships can lead to great things. Through my research so far, I have seen how Secure Fisheries exemplifies those same values. Without community relationships and an appreciation for local knowledge, Secure Fisheries may not have been able to identify means of adapting their work to the pandemic, like seeking alternatives to data collection or communication.

As I wrap up my research, I find myself reflecting back to my days in Mshangai, remembering what it was like to hand HURU kits to my neighbors and friends, knowing that they were receiving sorely-needed supplies. I have found a sense of belonging here in Oregon with the Marine Resource Management program and with Secure Fisheries (through Zoom!), and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for Upendo and Rosie, who opened up their homes and hearts to me and who patiently taught me what it means to build community. 

Straddling Two Cultures at Sea

by Johna Winters, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management

Johna Winters supporting OOI mooring operations in small boat off of the R/V Sikuliaq in 2018

As a marine technician, I’ve been to the North Pole, the equator, and the Great Lakes. I’ve worked with many oceanographers, limnologists (scientists that study freshwater systems like lakes), and ship’s crew to accomplish science missions from deploying scientific moorings off the coast of Oregon, to deep sea net trawls in the sea of California, to mud grabs in the deepest part of Lake Superior to look for evidence of invasive mussels. As a technician, my main job was to make sure that the scientists had what they needed to complete their projects: streams of data, sampling equipment, and expertise to deploy that equipment safely. In the process, I also obtained a U.S. Coast Guard rating which qualifies me to work as ship’s crew. 

An improvised science contraption Johna made out of a Tupperware container and spare parts, circa 2014. Photo Credit: Johna Winters.

But sometimes I used “people skills” as much as technical skills. Sometimes my job involved greasing the wheels of collaboration between scientists and crew. This role found me making an effort to communicate with each of these groups in their own language and then translating. Sometimes sampling methods didn’t make a lick of sense to the crew and sometimes scientists didn’t comprehend ship operations. In communicating with both groups, the techs were able to make data collection more efficient and higher quality. I didn’t see one group as superior to the other, only as serving different but important roles in our mission to study the ocean.

From technician to social scientist

It never occurred to me that I would one day be designing a study about research vessels for my master’s thesis work. While my degree in chemistry and my tech skills were useful for gathering accurate physical science data, they did nothing to help me wrap my head around these workplace interactions. I needed new models, frameworks, theories, and methodologies which the social sciences provided in abundance.

Johna on a cruise in the Arctic near the North Pole* aboard the USCG Cutter Healy in 2015. *The North Pole does not have an actual pole. Photo Credit: Croy Carlin

I got an inkling that these things could in fact be studied when an aquatic scientist gave me a paper called “Scientists and Mariners at Sea” (Bernard 1976). I was mystified that someone had written an academic paper about my strange profession. The crux of the paper is a discussion of some statistical methodology that was quite obscure to me at the time, but the other material in the paper was what was interesting to me. Research vessels today are quite different than they were in 1976. For example, alcohol is no longer permitted in the U.S. academic research fleet, there are many more women working in science (unacceptably, the proportion of non-white scientists in the geosciences has changed very little), and legal rights for LGBTQ+ people have advanced, but some of the themes of the Bernard paper are still relevant. Bernard writes about a dual hierarchy and the different cultures and value systems of scientists and mariners that, without the existence of research vessels, would never interact.  

Johna evaluating a sensor for damage on a rosette water sampler aboard the USCG Cutter Healy 2015. Photo Credit: Cory Mendenhall, USCG
A glass ceiling in ocean sciences

The longer I was a technician the more I realized that women in leadership roles were few and far between and it became obvious that I was treated differently because of my gender. Switching jobs did not alter this pattern. There were more women in the science parties that I interacted with, biology in particular, but in deck-work focused science parties, like mooring groups, and in the ship’s crew, not so much. I began to wonder, Did the unique environment of a research vessel have an influence over the cultural and historical momentum of sexism? Policies such as Title 9 and Title 7 had existed for decades, but how did policies designed to eliminate sexual harassment function in this unique environment?

Johna leading deck operations during a mooring deployment aboard the R/V Oceanus in 2016. Photo Credit: Mounted GoPRO

In 2016 or 2017, I came across another paper that has influenced my research direction: “SAFE: Survey of Academic Field Experiences” (Clancy et al. 2014). This study was originally designed for anthropologists but the researchers added other discipline categories when some geologists requested that they be included. The study found that a large proportion of respondents reported incidents of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination and assault in field sites and identified structural aspects of academia, such as high power differentials between students and more senior academics, as contributors to this dynamic. When I came across this paper, I thought, “Someone should do this in oceanography!” It was two years later that my master’s thesis project solidified around this topic, with the help and encouragement of my committee members.

Expanding Horizons

In order to answer my research questions, I had to break through my past bias against the social sciences. As a younger person I dismissed anything that in my mind was “not science.” I attribute this narrow way of thinking to many influences around me, from my B.S. in chemistry to a comic by xkcd, an attitude that was also perpetuated by my STEM professors during my undergraduate education.

Comic highlighting perceptions of different fields in science. Edits in red are Johna’s. Note that the sociologist didn’t even get a conversation bubble until Johna added one in. Source:

Today I find the notion of a hierarchy of disciplines ridiculous. Different questions require different tools. And the research questions for my thesis couldn’t be answered with the tools that I knew from my B.S. in chemistry or from being a technician, so I applied to the Marine Resource Management program at Oregon State University.

My journey through my master’s course work in Marine Resource Management has included a core of oceanography classes, as well as qualitative and quantitative social science methods and marine policy as well as elective classes in women’s and gender studies, accounting, and environmental politics. It is this combination of approaches and tools that will help me to carry out my research objectives and hopefully offer something of value to the research vessel community, by disrupting the patterns that keep talented women from reaching leadership roles as crew, scientists, and technicians. 

As Johna says, “You can lubricate a winch with a grease gun, but you can’t solve sexism with a salinometer.” Photo Credit: Shannon Zellerhoff