Namibian Research Project Leads to Unforgettable Adventure

Washed out roads and flash floods challenged Kieckenbush and colleagues.

Washed out roads and flash floods challenge Kiekebush and colleagues. Photo: Elsita Kiekebusch

When Elsita Kiekebusch agreed to conduct an environmental awareness campaign for Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN), she expected to face challenges. After all, the Namibian landscape can be harsh and inhospitable at times, and she would be driving across some of the most remote and desolate areas of the nation. While the results of her survey proved unspectacular, the journey itself contained surprises that made it an unforgettable adventure.

Miriam Kashia, international editor for Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), interviewed Kiekenbusch by email to find out about both her experiences and the work that sent the young woman on her remarkable journey.

BPGL: What type of work have you been doing for IECN?

KIEKENBUSCH: I’ve been focused on a coastal awareness campaign along the Atlantic coast of Namibia. My co-workers and I have interviewed approximately 250 local citizens and members of affiliated institutions — such as the provincial Councils and environmental Conservancies — to assess the impact of the campaign since its commencement a year and a half ago.

As the entire western border of Namibia is the ocean, you can imagine the incredible distances that we had to cover in order to carry out the survey. In one week, we went south to the small German-style port of Lüderitz, stopping at various sites along the way for the interviews. Then last week, we headed out into the unbelievably remote Kunene Region with the IECN land cruiser packed full with jerry cans, food, camping equipment, 2 spare tires, a toolbox and more.

BPGL: I understand you had quite an adventure. What are some of the more memorable experiences you had along the way?

With the Jeep's battery dead, Kiekebusch is stranded — but cheerful.

With the Land Cruiser's battery dead, Kiekebusch is stranded — but cheerful.

KIEKEBUSCH: We experienced bad roads like never before. At times sandy; at times stony; at times wet, steep, and muddy. It seemed like our car had seen it all, when we drove straight down a dry riverbed composed solely of boulders. We had to race to catch up with our translator-guide, who enjoyed driving his Government-owned truck as fast as he possibly could. (I’m talking 75 mph on gravel roads!) And this was just the first day.

That night found us camped next to the beautiful Hoanib riverbed. We were up late, because we had decided to blend in with local culture and slaughter a goat for dinner. By dinner, I mean that we ate the meat for the next three days straight. We were unable to buy purified water anywhere, but beer was available everywhere, so we drank that for three days straight, too.

The food and drink put us in high spirits even after we discovered that our car battery had died when we left the lights on in the dark, and we had no jumper cables. The next morning, we found ourselves stranded in practically every way you can think of.

Our translator-guide had awakened early in the morning. He drove across the riverbed, and went to the nearest small settlement, Purros, to find jumper cables. When he didn’t return, we suspected the worst — if he wasn’t dead or maimed, then we figured he was drunk and gone forever.

Water rages across

Water rages across a road in the Kunene Region, near Bergsig in Torra Conservancy. Photo: Elsita Kiekebusch

But soon we realized that the dry river to Purros had flooded overnight, so our translator-guide couldn’t have returned even if he wanted to. It was the flash-flood season in Namibia — a country with no permanent rivers within its borders — so in the rainy season, dry riverbeds in the desert can suddenly fill with water from rainfall miles away.

Certainly, the Hoanib was no calm stream that morning! It had become a raging torrent about 100 feet across, with rapids, rocks, unreliable sandbars — altogether impassable by any sort of vehicle.

So that was how we found ourselves trapped on the wrong side of the river from where we had to go next. Our car battery was dead, the petrol (gas) was low. There was no cell phone service. And we had no food, as our goat-meat and pots were in the back of the truck that our guide drove — and he had gone AWOL.

Somehow, we made it out of there. With the help of some tourists, who were also stranded at the campsite, we jump-started our car. A nice British lady fed us breakfast and directed us to a nearby lodge where we could buy petrol. And then there was nothing to do but wait for the water level to drop.

Around 3 p.m., we heard honking across the river and looked up to see our guide on the other side. He gestured wildly, and somehow managed to communicate to us that we should go to another spot further downriver. We felt we had no choice but to attempt the crossing before any new afternoon rains could catch up with us.

We put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive and ventured forward. The roar of the engine clashed with the sound of rushing water, as she swayed perilously from side to side. Somehow she finally made it across, and we were able to continue on our way towards the coast.

Dunes in Namibia make travel difficult and treacherous. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Beautiful wind-sculpted dunes in the Namib Desert of Western Namibia. Photo: Miriam Kashia

I’m pleased to report that we ultimately survived the trip. We had a nice few days at Swakopmund on the coast, and we’re now back in Windhoek, where I’m writing up a final report.

BPGL: You mentioned that you work for IECN. Tell me about what they do.

KIEKEBUSCH: Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN) is a private consulting company in the environmental field. It focuses on capacity building and sustainable development, basically applying the science to environmental issues. They do multiple consultancies (short-term projects) for many organizations, including the UN, Ministry of Environment and Tourism, the Namibia Polytechnic, and University of Namibia.

This consultancy — the one for which we did the project — was for the Namibian Coastal Management Project (NACOMA), which was developed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. NACOMA’s main goal with this research consultancy is to develop a legal framework by writing a white paper for the sustainable management of all of Namibia’s coast. The project has been ongoing for five years.

NACOMA wanted to have civilian input during the process, so they also began a coastal awareness campaign in 2007. They worked in four coastal regions of Namibia (Kunene, Hardap, Erongo, Karas).

The group distributed informational pamphlets, produced educational materials, worked with schools and youth groups, produced various media communications — newspaper articles, went on radio talk shows, television interviews, etc., about the white paper development process. They also addressed general issues of concern, such as quad-biking, which is a serious threat along the fragile coastal environment.

BPGL: What is particularly special about this coastal region?

A view of the Namibian desert. Photo: Miriam Kashia

The Namib Desert has biodiversity not found anywhere else on Earth. Photo: Miriam Kashia

KIEKEBUSCH: The harsh Namib desert all along the coast is where the cold, wet air from the South Atlantic polar currents meet the hot and extremely dry air of the desert.  That confluence has resulted in a unique ecology and biodiversity not found anywhere else on Earth.

The Namibian coast contains many different types of natural resources. They need to be used wisely and in a way that one type of resource does not damage another. We need to plan how to use resources and protect them at the same time.

BPGL: Aren’t there laws that protect the area?

KIEKEBUSCH: While Namibia has a comprehensive draft set of environmental laws applicable to the entire country, there is no specific coastal legislation or national coastal area policy. Laws dealing with coastal management issues are currently outdated and totally inadequate. They’re also reactive, rather than proactive, in achieving integrated coastal area management objectives that meet our current ecological, economic and social needs.

BPGL: What are some of the threats to the ecological integrity of the Namibian coast?

KIEKEBUSCH: The Namibian coast is sparsely populated, so overpopulation isn’t the primary environmental threat. The significant threats to this fragile area come from several sources:

  • Uncontrolled activities in protected areas, such as mining, tourism, off-road driving, and recreational fishing
  • Land reclamation for urban and commercial development
  • Marine pollution from the fishing industry, mining, oil and gas extraction, and harbor activities
  • Overfishing and over-harvesting
  • Introduction of invasive alien species through mariculture development
  • Excessive water exploitation for mining and consumption
  • Environmental variability and global climate change
Namibia's coastal region is a sensitive ecosystem. Photo: Elsita Kieckebusch

Namibia's coastal region is a sensitive ecosystem. Photo: Elsita Kieckebusch

These activities have a cumulative impact on the coastal environment, causing steady degradation and threatening not only the environment, but the economy and health of all Namibians as well.

BPGL: What did you discover with your research survey about the environmental impact of the coastal awareness campaign in Namibia?

KIEKEBUSCH: We traveled to the four coastal regions of Namibia and interviewed members of the public and members of related institutions (Ministry of Fisheries, Regional and Town Councils, etc.). Our survey tested knowledge of coastal issues and knowledge of NACOMA and its goals.

We traveled as far as Lüderitz, Opuwo, Terrace Bay (Skeleton Coast Park) and, of course, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. The results weren’t amazing. Our main conclusion was that NACOMA had spread itself too thin during the awareness-raising process, so we recommended that they target certain interest groups more than in the past. We also recommended that they stay away from the more inland areas. People in these areas were less informed and had less of an interest, because they don’t live near the coast anyway.

BPGL: To what degree has the campaign succeeded in its goals so far?

KIEKEBUSCH: We saw increases in environmental awareness in some areas. We also saw a large increase in the usage of the website, which was another thing we were evaluating. That was a good sign. NACOMA certainly completed many different communication activities that they intended to, and I think they got a lot of public interest in the white paper process. People came to the discussions to give input. Involving various shareholders in this process is a key to its success.

BPGL: I understand that Namibia is the only country in the world that has environmental protection written into its constitution.

KIEKEBUSCH: Yes, Namibia is one of the only countries that has a phrase in the constitution something along the lines of “every citizen has the right to a healthy and clean environment.”

This coastal management process is certainly something that should be commended — in fact, the whole of the Namibian coast at the moment is being considered to become a national park. It’s hard to provide environmental protection for a large and diverse area of land such as Namibia, particularly with limited resources and staff.

Tourists climb a giant dune in the Namibian desert. Photo: Miriam Kashia

Tourists climb a giant dune in the Namib Desert, the largest dunes in the world in the oldest desert in the world Photo: Miriam Kashia

One of the biggest problems faced along the coast — our area of concentration for this study — is the destruction left by holiday-makers during the Christmas/New Years holidays. People have been leaving trash and driving around the desert in off-road vehicles, which is very damaging to the environment. 2007 was a particularly bad year, but serious measures were taken to control that destruction in 2008, and it seems that they were successful in limiting the damage.

BPGL: Earlier, you mentioned “quad-biking,” and now you’ve just mentioned the use of off-road vehicles. How are quad-biking and off-road vehicles threatening the coastal environment?

KIEKEBUSCH: Quad-bikes are also called ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). Imagine a motorcycle with four wheels. A big problem is holidaymakers (mostly from South Africa) coming up to Namibia in December to do a lot of off-road driving in the dunes and gravel plains of the desert. These are very vulnerable areas. Track marks disrupt the soil micro-environment and leave scars on the land that take many years to go away. They also run over small animals and bird eggs along the way.

BPGL: Now that the research project is finished, what’s the next likely step in your career?

KIEKEBUSCH: Actually, I have a new job. I recently joined the staff of the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in the Namib Desert. The centre is basically a research station/environmental education institution. My project, in association with NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Agency), is a study of bacteria capable of living underneath rocks in extremely arid conditions. We are hoping to inform the search for life on Mars.

Miriam Kashia

International Editor

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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