By Erica DePalma, Research Program Coordinator

The Water Center at Penn

December 10, 2019


Photo captured of hippopotamus in the Okavango Delta through binoculars.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, about 7,500 miles southeast of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania within the southern african country of Botswana, lies the Okavango River Delta  – one of the largest inland deltas in the world. The Delta provides drinking water for one million people inhabiting three different countries and supports the habitat and livelihood of a vast variety of roaming wildlife – most notably the world’s largest remaining elephant population. With flowing rivers and seasonal wetlands, the Delta remains one of the most biodiverse regions of Africa, and home to some of the world’s most endangered species. It’s a place where for generations, humans and wildlife have lived harmoniously. However, as climate change threats, manifesting particularly in the form of drought, exert increasing stress on the Delta system, wildlife will begin (and have already begun) to encroach upon historical human territory and vice versa – all in search of water. 

Just on the outskirts of the Delta in Maun, Botswana is the Okavango Research Institute (ORI), a satellite research institution associated with the University of Botswana. The Institute is home to researchers and students from all over the world studying the Delta. In October of 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to the research institute alongside the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Health’s (CGH) operations coordinator, Amy Gastinger, as part of an effort to establish a global research/internship program (GRIP) through Penn Abroad for Penn graduate students. While in Botswana, we met with ORI’s water resource management program coordinator, Dr. Moseki Mothsholapheko to learn about the Delta and discuss collaborative research opportunities for Penn graduate students to take on over the summer months. Dr. Mothsholapheko, is an economic geographer, specializing in natural resource management and water livelihood. Dr. Mothsholapheko noted that the Delta is currently the most dry its been in years, causing more elephants to travel farther to find water and subsequently move “inland”. In response to this change in ecosystem health, resulting specifically in  the redistribution of elephants, federal policy has also started to change. Earlier this year, the government of Botswana lifted the ban on elephant hunting, subtly noting the human fear of elephants migrating towards their towns. Dr. Mothsholapheko noted that, conscious of this emerging situation, institute researchers are beginning to tackle new relevant research questions around topics including: 

  • The effects of climate change and dryness on the Delta and associated implications for human consumption behavior
  •  Human and wildlife conflicts as a result of overall less water in the Delta
  •  Response capacity as a result of climate change
  •  Heightened challenges resulting from water borne diseases that have been dormant for a   long time. 

Climate change and its associated implications are now at the forefront of the institute’s research agenda. 

After visiting ORI, my colleague and I were able to explore the Delta itself. Driving from ORI, on the singular paved road through the city of Maun and into the Delta – we took a sharp left turn into white sand – end route to the Delta river outlets. Four-wheel drive engaged, we were passersby to a series of zebra and elephant clusters and six-foot-tall termite mounds, as the sun relentlessly beat down. We witnessed small, sparse clusters of Batswana (the people of Botswana) communities along the way – homes of Delta “polers,” guiding the tourists and temporary dwellers through the depths of the waterways alongside the hippopotamus and water buffalo. The polers discussed their self-sustaining fishing practices, and how the Delta is their primary source of food, water, and trade. Since October is within the dry season, on-foot, we traversed pockets of dry, cracked Earth amidst the remaining bodies of freshwater. During wetter seasons, the Delta is composed of lush, green grasses and papyrus. 

After visiting the research institute and exploring the Delta, and in collaboration with Dr. Mothsholapheko, we were able to develop a scope of work for Penn students to engage in via the GRIP program. Once selected, Penn students will have the opportunity to support local ORI faculty and students on various water science (engineering, technology, innovation) and governance research projects such as:

  • Occurrence of Disinfection by-products in drinking water
    • Other water quality related challenges in reference to storage facilities (i.e. lagoons) – investigation of potential innovative technology to address contamination sources and optimal catchment infrastructure for scarce, but high intensity storms
  • Integrated Water Resource Management and Ethics Action Group, Africa-EU Innovation Alliance (AfriAlliance) for Water and Climate
  • Channel failure in the Okavango Delta: understanding channel change and floodplain evolution within wetlands and drylands
  • Water Infrastructure challenges related to system leakages
  • Issues of power and inequality yielding conflicts around water resources. Investigation into land and water planning, policy and governance.

Notably, the currency of Botswana is the Pula, which literally means “rain” in Setswana (the national language of Botswana), speaking to the value that Batswana place on rain and water. The Delta is a relatively new (in geologic time) natural resource marvel, that provides not only physical life but also hope for the local people and wildlife in an otherwise drought ridden, desert climate. For many beings – the Delta is home. For researchers, the Delta is an incredible testbed with seemingly endless potential hypotheses. And for some, it’s both.


Erica DePalma is the Research Program Coordinator at the Water Center at Penn. She is also a Master of Applied Geosciences candidate with a focus in hydrology at the University of Pennsylvania. While in graduate school, she hopes to bridge her professional work at the Water Center at Penn with the technical and scientific skills she’ll be learning in the classroom.