Durban special: water expert profile

How can we secure a future for the people living on the front line of climate change? In Eastern Africa, environmental scientist Katharine Cross is helping to safeguard water resources that are becoming more and more unpredictable.

Katharine Cross

Climate change is already taking its toll in Eastern Africa. Even the snow caps of the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro are receding and are projected to disappear by 2025. In many areas, increasing populations and an ever-increasing demand for water are leading to conflicts over resources.

Katharine’s expertise as an environmental scientist, particularly in groundwater and river basin management, is being put to good use in the region. She and her colleagues are involved in a variety of projects across Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and Kenya which focus on strengthening institutions to better manage water resources between the different users such as farmers, hydropower companies and pastoralists.

They identify ways to adapt to climate change impacts which can include finding alternative sources of livelihood, rehabilitating river banks and improving dialogue between users to share water resources more equally. The aim is to make sure there is enough water in the region’s rivers to service all needs, as well as sustain the natural environment.

“I have always been interested in environmental issues, having studied environmental biology and environmental engineering and worked in the environmental consulting field on remediating soil and groundwater in contaminated sites. And I’ve always enjoyed outdoor activities such as hiking and skiing,” says Katharine.”

“But it was by undertaking development work with Engineers without Borders in Bolivia and Ghana that I became exposed to the need to invest in the environment to ensure improved health and access to resources by communities.”

Through close collaboration with IUCN’s Drylands Programme, the Water and Wetlands Programme for which Katharine works uses an integrated approach which considers aspects such as rangeland management within water catchment areas. This means working with governments and communities to plan how water resources are used and shared within a catchment and beyond to the wider ecosystem.

“What we’re helping to set up, and what the government is trying to formalize, are water associations made up of farmers, pastoralists and government representatives. The demand comes from the community and solutions come from local residents themselves,” explains Katharine.

Change takes time, especially when it involves changing the way natural resources are managed and governed. IUCN has worked for many years in the Pangani River Basin which is shared between Kenya and Tanzania and momentum is building.

“Slowly people are understanding the impact their use of water has on other people within the basin. For example, in Tanzania, people on the slopes of Kilimanjaro are extracting amounts of water which result in shortages in the dry, lowland areas. The forums that have been created and strengthened allow opportunities for these different users to negotiate over allocation and reduce conflicts,” says Katharine.

“There are many challenges ahead such as securing the long term investment needed to change people’s behaviour and attitude towards sharing water.

“People generally believe that water is a god-given gift and that there is no need to pay for abstraction. But in order to manage the basin, resources are required.”

Katharine says the highlights of her work include working with governments in various countries and being able to influence the way water resources are managed and really helping people cope with climate change in practical ways.

Many of the lessons and best practices from different projects are being applied by the government, specifically in Tanzania and Uganda, in other river basins, and they are also being scaled-up to other projects where IUCN is involved in the wider Eastern and Southern Africa region.

“It’s a great pleasure for me to work with such a dedicated team of IUCN staff who are implementing projects on the ground. They are extremely professional and achieve results despite high work pressures and often challenging circumstances.”

Katharine can be contacted at [email protected]

Work area: 
East and Southern Africa
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