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Achieving healthy African Great Lakes through a highly collaborative freshwater scientific network

Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

Like all global freshwater resources, the African Great Lakes (AGL) face myriad threats, accelerated by climate change. And yet there is no long-term, coordinated process focused on their protection, in part because funders tend to support short-term projects led by external research teams from the global North. These approaches are often disparate and uncoordinated, resulting in a lack of comprehensive and comparable scientific data, insufficient resources and inadequate information for resource managers to make effective decisions. Large, transboundary freshwater resources need long-term, consistent, and harmonized efforts to gather comprehensive information, so that lake-wide, science-based decisions can be made to protect them. ACARE’s process is a cutting-edge response to a problem for which a solution has been sought for over 35 years: a long-term, highly collaborative network of experts to strengthen science on our largest freshwater resources. This is the solution. ACARE’s long-term, collaborative process increases local resilience and capacity of African freshwater scientists, managers, and decision-makers on the AGL by leveraging the combined skills, assets, and resources of public, private, and nonprofit entities to strengthen science, enhance information exchange, grow partnerships, build trust, and streamline research administration.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

Calls for an organization to facilitate African Great Lakes freshwater collaboration have been occurring for decades. Recently movements have re-highlighted the significance of African freshwater and elevated calls for increased collaboration, with the most recent effort being a catalyst for the creation of ACARE: the African Great Lakes Conference in Entebbe, Uganda, led by The Nature Conservancy. To achieve this African-led collaborative process, ACARE builds upon the successful North American Great Lakes Lake Committee model, where each lake has an expert committee, representing various entities, to ensure the lakes are well managed using science-based information. With African freshwater experts leading the process, ACARE and its partners created the first-ever, African Great Lakes-wide decision-making network, using aspects from the North American process where appropriate, and adding pieces where necessary to fit not only the African context, but also the unique needs of each African Great Lake and its riparian countries. The network was developed through a successful workshop in November 2019 in Entebbe, Uganda, which included attendance from freshwater experts from 18 countries, including members from each of the 10 riparian African Great Lakes countries and resulted in the establishment of six multi-jurisdictional collaborative bodies to help address gaps in knowledge on each of the African Great Lakes. These Advisory Groups have members from universities, established multilateral government organizations, research institutions, and governments. All members have agreed to this highly collaborative network to ensure the health of the African Great Lakes.

How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

As a newly formed effort, ACARE is at the stage of developing climate change resilience initiatives. During the coming months, an ACARE staff member will begin working with individual Advisory Groups to assess the group’s goals and progress, as it pertains to climate change and other salient work. ACARE anticipates that this will lead to collaborative projects related to climate change resiliency across Advisory Groups. Potential projects currently being explored include: monitoring of lake levels for ground-truthing of climate change models at national and regional levels; creating innovative technological approaches to promote food security in the face of climate change for farmers and fisher-folks; and forming partnerships to enhance knowledge and funding access for promoting climate adaptation measures at local, regional and global levels. Additionally, ACARE is forming a specialized regional committee, composed of Advisory Group members and global experts, to specifically address climate change issues on these lakes.

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

ACARE is a newly created initiative and has started by laying the groundwork for future collaborative projects and decision-making amongst its six African Great lakes Advisory Groups. At this stage, each Advisory Group has set up a structure, guidelines for working together and defined priority goals. In upcoming meetings, these groups are poised to discuss: prioritize research needs on their lake, assess issues that are regional and can be combined with other Advisory Groups, establish plans for better sharing of their research data and information, developing collaborative projects, achieving healthier aquaculture practices, protecting biodiversity, and climate change resiliency. ACARE staff will work with the Advisory Groups during the summer and fall of 2020 to assist with each group’s strategy, and across the regional network, for how actions and projects can influence decision-making in future phases of ACARE’s work.

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

ACARE is answering the over-35-years of calls to enhance collaboration between large lakes experts. The biggest challenges include two systemic practices: lack of resources within organizations to facilitate collaboration, and the practice of funding short-term projects. To address the former issue, ACARE was created to be the facilitator for collaboration, allowing experts from various organizations to meet and provide input. The latter issue is being addressed through building partnerships and perseverance: ACARE has created a solid base of partners interested in seeing positive action take place. These partners, with ACARE, are building financial resilience through cumulative focus on these much needed issues and processes and include non-profit organizations, governments, foundations, and a variety of other individuals and institutions. However, even with little funding, ACARE will be able to continue communications and information exchange through electronic means. With full funding, in-person meetings will enhance effective working relationships between members of riparian countries. In-person meetings are important in interjurisdictional, natural resource work. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented members of this network from engaging in such activities. Thus, ACARE is hiring an on-the-ground manager to assist in virtual communications among members of each Advisory Group during COVID-19 and as a normal practice.

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

ACARE was established as a perpetual process. The network of Advisory Groups are composed of freshwater experts who collectively seek to ensure the conservation of the African Great Lakes and its resources for generations to come through information exchange, enhanced trust, and harmonization of research priorities, ultimately to strengthen science on the African Great Lakes. The stakeholder buy-in for this process will ensure the longevity of the Advisory Group system well into the future. Furthermore, the members of ACARE are dedicating their lives to ensuring the process continues and will ensure that the network of African experts expands globally to strengthen the freshwater scientific community. Without this process, short-term, disparate, and incomplete information will continue to inadequately inform good management and protection of these critical resources.

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

Though the process in name is not unique, and in fact one of the most successful scientific networks exists on the North American Great Lakes, ACARE’s process in practice has never been done on this scale. The creation of the Advisory Groups on each African Great Lake has resulted in many other organizations realizing the benefit of having such a valuable resource. Various organizations are interested in investing research resources in Africa and have contacted ACARE due to our leadership in creating this network. The future of this process will become a model for other water resource experts (especially focused on transboundary resources), to create similar efforts. It has been suggested that ACARE become a pan-African organization. The biggest lesson to emerge is that the need for this process is greatly needed, on a scale larger than we anticipated.