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NDMC’s Mwape working with Nebraskans on Republican River Basin drought project

May 4, 2021

National Drought Mitigation Center research assistant Andrew Mwape is working with the state of Nebraska and four of its Natural Resources districts on drought planning for the Republican River Basin.

Andrew Mwape of Zambia is working with the state of Nebraska and four of its Natural Resources Districts on drought planning for the Republican River Basin. To explain why stakeholders in the region should prepare for drought, he offered a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” 

Mwape is a Ph.D. student in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working with the National Drought Mitigation Center and with the state’s Department of Natural Resources.  

As recently as January, all of Nebraska was in drought. While conditions have eased across much of the state in recent months, Nebraska DNR is taking a proactive approach. In 2019, the state agency entered into an agreement with the NDMC to provide funding for a graduate student to help evaluate current and potential water management practices in the districts. Mwape, a recent Mandela Washington Fellowship honoree from Zambia, was selected from a competitive field to work on the project in Nebraska.  

Mwape learned about the opportunity, and the Drought Center, when he was hosted at UNL as part of the fellowship program. For Mwape, drought is both a professional and personal concern. While in Zambia, he founded an environmental advocacy organization to encourage sustainability practices in one of the world’s most drought-vulnerable regions.  

As a Mandela fellow, he wanted to learn about effective policymaking that could lead to better drought resilience in Africa. During his fellowship, he met someone who had some thoughts on the subject: Donald Wilhite, founding director of the National Drought Mitigation Center. Wilhite told Mwape about the Drought Center and introduced him to another former NDMC director, Michael Hayes. The conversations convinced Mwape that enrolling at UNL and working at the Drought Center would be the best place to continue his studies on drought management.  

“Africa is one of the most vulnerable places on the planet when you talk about drought, because of the geographical location and also the economic capacity to bounce back,” Mwape said. “It's always interested me to see how I can be of impact in bringing about policies that would equip people and communities to bounce back from drought.” 

Now, Hayes is one of Mwape’s advisors as he works with Nebraska DNR to develop scenario exercises and identify possible gaps in drought preparedness with stakeholders who live in the Republican River Basin. Through the exercises and planning, Nebraska DNR officials say they intend to help develop better understanding of needs and issues related to storing surface and aquifer water to meet crop-water demands during future droughts.  

Andy Pedley, integrated water management analyst with Nebraska DNR, said the efforts to organize basin-wide drought planning exercises and analyze the findings are among the many objectives included in the Republican River Basin-Wide Plan. The overarching goal of the plan is to balance water demands and supply across the basin, while remaining in compliance with the Republican River Compact

The Republican River Basin, Pedley said, is one of the drier regions of Nebraska, and tends to be drier from the Upper Republican NRD in the west toward the Lower Republican NRD to the east. Because water resources are shared not just among the four NRDs but also across the state and across state lines, Pedley said that the effort to identify possible drought preparedness gaps should be as thorough as possible. He and Mwape have been working on the project with NRD partners, though those meetings have all been held virtually due to the pandemic. As vaccination rates increase and travel restrictions ease, Mwape and Pedley both said they can envision a day where they visit project partners located in southwestern and southern Nebraska and discuss drought preparedness face-to-face.  

“I am really impressed with his ability to pick up some of the nuances in the basin without having the firsthand exposure yet,” Pedley said. “I can only imagine how difficult it would be to come from another country and have to figure out what's going on in a certain part of this new state that you can't visit. I think he is doing a great job with the research and the work that he's doing. He's very passionate about drought planning.” 

Currently, the project is in an information-gathering stage. Mwape is finalizing a survey that will be sent to NRD partners. The goal of the survey is to get a clearer picture from on-the-ground stakeholders of impacts they see and experience in times of drought. The survey covers subjects like crop production, municipal water supply, household water usage, fire threats and more.  

The project involves engaging farmers, water planners and other stakeholders to find out how droughts have affected them and how they can strategize together to come up with the best possible responses when the next drought occurs, he said. 

“Much of the economic activity there is agricultural,” Mwape said. “Drought affects them not only in water aspects, but also their health -- their mental health and mental stress. Everybody matters and everybody must play a role in addressing issues of drought. We realized that not only making them aware of the impacts of drought but also engaging them would be very helpful. They are the ones that live with the droughts.”  

To do that, Mwape is working with his advisors to develop a scenario exercise and bring stakeholders in the four NRDs to the table to assess water management values and drought management strategies. Mwape said that to select the best types of exercises for the NRD stakeholders, he has consulted Collaborative Drought Planning Using Scenario Exercises, co-authored by another of his advisors, NDMC education coordinator Deborah Bathke. 

“To engage the groups who will participate in the drought planning process, we decided on a combination of tabletop exercises and workshops,” Bathke said. “The stakeholders who live and work in these natural resources districts have an advanced understanding of water issues there, and we believe that these exercises will help them focus on what can be updated in existing drought plans and collaborate on making the kinds of challenging water usage decisions that arise during droughts. Andrew has been doing a great job of developing these events, especially given that travel has been restricted due to the pandemic.” 

Those results will be assessed, and then, Mwape said, the goal will be to introduce communities in the basin to possible drought management strategies.  

“There are some basin-wide plans that already exist but very few people may be aware of that,” he said. “We want to familiarize them.” 

Along with Hayes and Bathke, Mwape is being advised by High Plains Regional Climate Center director Rezaul Mahmood. NDMC assistant director Kelly Helm Smith is a project advisor. The two-year project involves working with researchers and academics at the Drought Center and UNL’s School of Natural Resources, government agencies and on-the-ground stakeholders. That is a combination Mwape sought, as he intends to work on drought management issues with similar partners in Africa upon completion of his graduate studies at Nebraska.  

-Cory Matteson, NDMC Communications