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.”

Returning to my roots: Exploring groundwater resource vulnerability and water scarcity in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Maria Jose Iglesias-Thome, M.S. Student, Water Resources Science

My passion for water started at a very young age. When I look back at my childhood, the things that interested me growing up, and where I stand today, I can’t help but think that this trajectory makes sense. When my thesis advisors gave me the chance to propose a research project, I jumped at the opportunity to study groundwater in my hometown. 

I grew up in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, a small coastal town situated a few yards from the Caribbean ocean, nestled between vine-covered sand dunes and dense marshy mangrove forests and sitting on top of an ancient underground network of “rivers”. For locals, the idea that underneath lies a hyper-connected and inherently sensitive groundwater system, is part of the traditional knowledge passed on through generations. As the region continues to grow and develop, the abstract ideas of how the local aquifer flows, are replaced with an erroneous notion that clean water will always be accessible and will never cease to exist.

The place: Complexity hidden beneath our feet

Figure 1. Map of Quintana Roo. Tony Burton (2010)

The whole Yucatan peninsula sits on a flat limestone platform, built on top of millenia of fossilized calcified skeletons from creatures past. The carbonate rock that was left behind is highly soluble and vulnerable to rainwater dissolution. Throughout the years, heavy rainfall, common in this tropical environment, has carved a series of conduits, revealing a contiguous coastal aquifer and a landscape virtually devoid of rivers and non-groundwater dependent surface water systems. This process is known as karstification and the topography it leaves behind is known as karst. Scattered across the Yucatan peninsula are larger dissolution conduits: caves and sinkholes that have collapsed to form what are locally referred to as cenotes, derived from the Mayan ts’onot, that give us a direct look into the aquifer. Other important hydrogeologic features include major faults systems and regional-scale flow patterns from the center towards the marginal ends of the Peninsula, the coast. Inside these coastal karst aquifers, a thin freshwater lens (5-7 meters deep) lays atop an intruding saltwater layer, known as the “cuña salada”, penetrating 10-15 meters into the subsurface. This shallow layer provides most of the water for an increasingly growing population across the entire peninsula.

The problem: Chaotic population sprawl 

The complexity of this groundwater system results in an inherently vulnerable resource, especially to anthropogenic sources of disturbance. Likewise, it is unclear how patterns of water use may be depleting groundwater quantity and/or degrading groundwater quality and how these changes are affecting water availability to local communities and ecosystems in the region. Extreme urbanization and population growth may be a large driver of water insecurity and scarcity.  In 2017, the state of Quintana Roo hosted over 17 million tourists and sustained an average hotel occupancy of around 83%. The number of tourists visiting Quintana Roo has more than doubled in the last 10 years, with a 120% increase in yearly tourists between 2009 and 2019. Similarly, the population in the area has grown around 40% over the past 10 years. Spatially, development in the region follows an overall gradient from north to south, while the population is currently concentrated in northern communities, southern communities are experiencing higher rates of population growth. In other words, development is quickly spreading south.

As urbanization continues to sprawl across the coastline, concerns about saltwater intrusion, deep-aquifer contamination through wastewater injection, and shallow-aquifer contamination through septic tank leaks and fertilizer application continue to grow.

Understanding the relationships between social and ecological systems through their shared reliance on groundwater resources is important for evaluating water security and subsequent water scarcity issues. It may also prove critical in examining how coastal communities that rely on water for their livelihoods may be disproportionately affected by ongoing changes in water resources in the region.

Figure 2. Situation map for a hypothetical aquifer in Quintana Roo, showcasing transformations (yellow diamonds), flows (arrows) and storages (white boxes).

The methods: Mixed methodology and an evolving plan

Mixed research methods are useful tools in studying complex social-ecological system problems, like those in Quintana Roo. Qualitative interviews are a central component of my research methodology. This summer I had the privilege of conducting semi-structured interviews with large and small water users, water managers and water protectors. Interviewees included hotel representatives, domestic users, NGO and civil society leaders, and local government officials. My interviews covered a variety of topics and were rooted in concepts related to water scarcity, resilience theory and social-ecological systems frameworks. The data collected with these interviews will allow me to understand important exposure to water scarcity and other hazards, social vulnerabilities and sensitivities that affect how individuals and groups respond to water stress and aid in evaluating adaptive capacity from varying degrees of scale. Synthesizing important hydrogeological knowledge as well as the data collected through interviews, will allow for a holistic approach to understanding and measuring  water scarcity through an integrated assessment model-framework (IAMF). The model aims to integrate biophysical aspects of water scarcity, such as seasonality, water source, quantity and quality, with socioeconomic aspects of water scarcity, such as accessibility, reliability and social vulnerability.  It also hopes to include nuances that are often overlooked in water security models and water scarcity assessments. 

It is fascinating to research a place and a problem that are so dynamic and often evolving. One of the reasons why I am so deeply interested in natural resource management and specifically water resource science is because I grew up seeing the landscape around me change. I feel infinitely privileged to be working in a place I love and know, and hope to continue to contribute to what is known about it.