It has rained in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia for three consecutive weeks since the beginning of January 2017. While some “Windhoekers” became really annoyed with all of the rain, most of Namibia rejoiced. We, at Gobabeb,
were all delighted and waiting impatiently for the water from the Khomas highlands to flood the ephemeral Kuiseb River. The Kuiseb river basin, approximately 14,700 km2, spans areas of the Erongo and Khomas regions. The Kuiseb is a westward flowing ephemeral river, meaning it only flows for a short period after heavy rainfall. Just as a bath tub catches all the water that falls within its sides, the river basin directs all of the water that falls within it to the Kuiseb River. Most of the water comes from Khomas highlands, the ‘headquarters’ of the river. The rest of the water in the Kuiseb River comes from the Erongo region, which flows 440km from the ‘headquarters’ west of Windhoek through the Namib Desert before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Walvis Bay. The Kuiseb River does not reach the sea very often, but rather ends in the sandy river bed. The River plays an important ecological role in the area it covers.
The Kuiseb River floods are relatively well documented in Namibia, as observations of the floods to the coast date back to the mid-1800s. After the Gobabeb Research and Training centre was established in 1962, they first recorded a major flood in 1963 (Jacobson et. al. 1995). More recently, in 2009 Walvis Bay suffered major water woes when the Kuiseb damaged electrical infrastructures and pumps for weeks, damages such as these had not occurred since 2000 (Hartman 2011). Latter floods pushed the river into impermanent wetlands, but conditions were too dry to enable the Kuiseb River to reach all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. However, in 2011 sufficient rainfall propelled the Kuiseb River toward the coast for the first time in a decade and the river continued to flow for about 6 months. The river had not reached Gobabeb since 2015 but just recently this year, 11 February 2017, it started flowing and although we think the water may not reach the Atlantic Ocean, the water reached Gobabeb on the 13th February 2017.
The Kuiseb River plays an important role in maintaining the livelihoods of people and organisms living along the river, as well as the coastal region. The river provides water to the Topnaar communities living along the river, the entire town of Walvis Bay, some regional mines and Gobabeb Research and Training Centre. Since the Kuiseb River is an ephemeral river (only flows sometimes) these communities use water from the aquifer, which is an underneath source of groundwater. When the river floods, it recharges the aquifer. In addition to the communities the river serves, the river also provides water to domestic animals such as goats, donkeys and cattle of the Topnaar communities and to wild animals living in the Namib Desert such as gemsbok (oryx), hyenas, springboks and jackals. When the river dries up, the animals drink water from artificial and natural water points that are recharged from the Kuiseb aquifer. This river is important for the ecosystem as it also provides water for the plants along the river beds, which then provides shades for the animals during the day when the temperature is high and also helps the aquifer to stay cool.
On the 12th of February more than 60 travellers flocked to Gobabeb asking whether the river had arrived. Some Gobabeb staff drove from the centre to Homeb, a Topnaar settlement 20.3 km south of Gobabeb to go and see whether the river had reached the village. They were quite excited when they arrived at Homeb and saw that the river was flowing there even though it had yet to reach Gobabeb yet. These staff members then drove back to the centre and waited along the bank of the dry river channel for the water to reach Gobabeb. Later that evening, actually at 00:22 Martin Handjaba senior research technician and masters student (NUST) at Gobabeb sent out a message to some staff members saying “The River came down” and everyone awake at the centre excitedly rushed to the river to see the incredible view! If that was not enough, the river flowed for about 6 days. On the 17th of February when we left for Gobabootcamp, which is a three day backpacking trip within the Namib Naukluft National Park, the river was dry, and the silt in the river channel had cracked. However, on the 21st February, the water flowed to Gobabeb once again without most of the Gobabeb staff even realizing it! Hopefully this signifies the start of a very wet year ahead!