Civil service's loss becomes lake's gain

February 20, 1998

The University of Greenwich's Natural Resources Institute, once a an official state agency, is leading efforts to revive one of Africa's natural wonders, reports David Jobbins

Lake Tanganyika is one of the natural wonders of the world. At its deepest, it is almost 1.5 kilometres and holds almost a sixth of the world's fresh water. It is a unique natural laboratory, with at least 300 fish species, 200 of which are found nowhere else.

And its future is on a knife edge. The delicate natural balance, which has evolved over 10 million years, is in danger of being upset by human pressure. The lake draws its waters from rivers draining 250,000 square kilometres of the four countries that surround Lake Tanganyika. Heavy agricultural use of the surrounding land has accelerated erosion, and topsoil laden with fertilisers and pesticides is washing in from the catchment areas. Urbanisation has brought sewage and industrial waste into water courses and then into the lake.

The lake's troubles are exacerbated by the political and social problems of a region that has seen more than its fair share of war, genocide and human misery.

But the Lake Tanganyika biodiversity project aims to help the four nations surrounding the lake - Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Tanzania and Zambia -produce an effective and sustainable system for managing and conserving the biodiversity of Lake Tanganyika.

The five-year project, involving universities and other institutions from the four states with advice from international agencies, runs until 2000. It is being implemented through the United Nations Office for Project Services by Chatham-based Natural Resources Institute in collaboration with two British research organisations, MRAG Ltd and the Institute of Freshwater Ecology. Funding comes from the Global Environmental Facility, the interim financial mechanism for the new international conventions on climate change and biodiversity.

NRI is a rare example of a major research institute joining a university instead being spun off from one. It is part of the University of Greenwich, but its global reputation was established when it was part of the civil service. Its skills are in clearly defined areas such as pest control, livestock, food security, fisheries and agronomy. But the emphasis is increasingly multidisciplinary, a trend underlined by the creation of the natural resources management department, which houses the Tanganyika project.

Such projects need not only the traditional specialists but environmentalists, social scientists and economists. The natural resources management department was formed specifically to facilitate an integrated multidisciplinary approach to environmental management and the sustainable use of natural resources. It brings together forestry, livestock, fisheries and land resources groups under a single management. It is expert in farming systems, wildlife management, land-use planning, watershed and coastal zone management, community forestry, institutional development and project-cycle management.

New postgraduate initiatives with the University of Greenwich include an MSc in natural resources management that will be offered partly in overseas institutions. The emphasis will be on developing local capacity for the planning and integrated management of natural resources in a way typified by the Lake Tanganyika project.

Barry Blake, head of the natural resources management department, says: "We can provide the framework so that when it comes to the attention of the partner countries, they have a framework to use." The NRMD's turnover in 1996-97 is an estimated Pounds 7 million out of a total for the institute of Pounds 22 million, which in turn is a fifth of the turnover of the whole university. The NRMD's funds come from Department for International Development, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, United Nations Development Programme, the German aid agency GTZ, the Know How Fund, the European Commission and a range of public and private customers.

NRI's origins stretch back to 1894, when the scientific and practical department at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, London, was created to provide analytical and commercial information on the natural resources of Britain's colonies. It went through various changes over the years until it became the Overseas Development Natural Resources Institute in 1987. In 1990 it became an executive agency under the government's Next Steps Programme and assumed the title Natural Resources Institute.

In May 1996, NRI was transferred to the University of Greenwich, where it functions as a research institute of the university, using the university's administrative and technological infrastructure.

A period of rapid adjustment followed with the creation of Natural Resources International - formerly NRI's international division - as a joint venture company owned by a consortium of Greenwich and Edinburgh universities and Imperial and Wye colleges. NRI's ten departments were reduced to five, with 0 scientists from many disciplines. Up to 50 of the scientists are on overseas postings of three to five years, and most of the rest have had overseas field experience. Director John Perfect says: "You are looking at a broad experience of more than 1,000 years of exposure in developing countries."

The 1996 research assessment exercise came during NRI's transition from agency status to a university institute. Despite short notice and unfamiliarity with the process, it achieved a 4 for agriculture - better than its NRI partner, Wye College. The rating is worth nearly Pounds 1 million a year to the institute in money for research - funding that is not tied to specific projects.

Dr Perfect says: "Suddenly we have research money. People can bid to do research that they actually want to do, not something they have to apply for in response to a call from a research programme or funding council. Most important, it will bring a huge rush of new blood into the institute. Over the past ten years the institute has staggered along with very little junior recruitment. In the past three months, we gained 20 new PhD students."

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