African Great Lakes Annual Meeting Shows Why Intercontinental Collaboration Is Essential

Africa’s Great Lakes span ten countries, provide over 25 percent of the earth’s fresh water and are critical to the livelihoods of over 62 million people, according to the African Center for Aquatic Research and Education.
9 February 2024
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Kisumu — As the snow and frost and ice and seemingly inhumane levels of cold continue to plague North America in the midst of their 'arctic' winter, here in Kenya we decided to cut some of our American and Canadian cousins some slack.

We invited many of them to head to Kisumu, on the shores of beautiful Lake Victoria, to take part in an important meeting of minds.

Over 200 scientists converged from 3-6 February for the Annual Meeting of the African Great Lakes Stakeholder Network. This unprecedented collaboration brings together freshwater experts, managers and policy makers.

Despite the thousands of kilometers, differences in climate and landscapes, the air miles and the jetlag, the North American and African freshwater researchers had far more in common than you might think. They shared expertise, data, and innovative approaches to tackle common challenges through a unique lens. By comparing and contrasting the two ecosystems, we hope to unlock solutions with far-reaching impact.

Shared searches for similar challenges can unlock solutions that benefit the world.

Despite some clear differences, freshwater lakes around the world can be surprisingly similar – in overall structure, whom they support, the issues that plague them, and possible solutions.

First there are some obvious differences.

The seven African Great Lakes are housed within ten countries in east and central Africa, whereas the five North American (or Laurentian) Great Lakes are housed between Canada and the United States. Both sets of lakes, however, support the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of denizens who live in the immediate surrounding areas, but also tens of millions more who live further afield.

Growing pressures on precious freshwater resources must be addressed together.

This support can encompass immediate needs, such as drinking water and fish for sustenance, but also can support for livelihoods and recreational activities. Africa's population is expected to double by 2050, putting increasingly intense pressure on the continent's freshwater resources from growing industries, farms, and power needs.

Both sets of lakes are vital to the continents in which they live. Similarities continue when you consider what ails them. Concerns about the sustainability of fisheries; algal blooms; invasive species; microplastics.

The role and voices of local and Indigenous communities is another important concern. All of these questions and more affect water bodies on both continents, and across the world for that matter.

That's why I was excited to see the continents' greatest limnological minds – the scientists who study  biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes and other bodies of fresh water – gather in person to hash out shared solutions for shared problems. Their ideas aren't confined to academic journals. They will translate into tangible action, empowering communities to protect their precious water resources.

But I would love to see more.

Funding for bridge-building is money well spent.

This collaboration isn't just about scientific breakthroughs; it's about building bridges. We need more opportunities for North American and African scientists who work not only on freshwater issues but a whole host of environmental issues to meet in person and explore complementarities.

Why not more funding for African scientists to address the challenges in a harmonized manner through exchange visits and regular meetings with an action-oriented agenda, fostering trust and effective information exchange?

Why not more support for emerging female scientists whose careers and the impact they make could be greatly enhanced with more opportunities to learn from their peers?

Why not strengthened links between African freshwater experts and their North American counterparts providing opportunities for collaboration on projects, plans and ideas for on-the-ground work?

Having worked in both continents myself, one thing has always struck me quite plainly: we are more similar than we are different. So, let's not unnecessarily duplicate effort when we can build more bridges, and share what is already at our fingertips – solutions to shared environmental problems.

Kevin Obiero is a research scientist and Centre Director of Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute, Chair of Board of Directors of African Center for Aquatic Research and Education, and Board Member of IISD Experimental Lakes Area.

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