Conversations on climate: Karoli Njau

“It’s very easy to make a desert, but very difficult to go back”


Professor Karoli Njau is a Tanzanian environmental engineering water expert who grew up in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. He is Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor: Academic Research and Innovation at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology in Arusha, Tanzania, which has the motto ‘Academia for Society and Industry’. We have been working together on a fascinating process to develop a regional Masters’ curriculum on climate change and sustainable development for southern Africa – more about that in a later blog.

I spoke to Professor Njau in Dar es Salaam recently – my first ‘conversation on climate’, to explore the fears, concerns, hopes and sources of comfort of a range of different people on the mounting climate crisis in which we find ourselves. And what I discovered was not only an experienced and respected academic, but also someone with an open heart and imaginative approach to a topic we have spoken about for too long as purely a technical issue.

Many of Karoli’s concerns for the future – and indeed of the present – centre on water scarcity. As he said, “My short-term concerns are also my fears for the long term. When I see how dry some places have become, when I see people changing crops because they can no longer plant the old type of crop, when I see people queuing for water, and this happens a lot, then this brings the issues of climate change pretty close.”

In describing how he likes to follow the progress of NASA’s probes into space, he muses about the causes of the craters discovered on Mars and other planets, which appear to have had water flowing at some time. Karoli imagines what can happen to planet Earth – “whether that is where we are going. I know from science that humans are aggravating climate change on Earth, but I wonder whether some of these heavenly bodies turned into water-desolate places through some similar process of environmental change.”


Possible mud cracks preserved in the Martian rock slab known as ‘Old Soaker’

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, January 2017.

He elaborates further on profound changes that have already occurred: “I was born on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. I grew up there, at a relatively high altitude where it was always fairly cool. You could not grow maize, as it was too cold. But recently, on a visit to my parents, who now live in the lowlands, I was told when I arrived ‘oh, they are not here, they are in the mountains.’ My father and my brother had gone up the mountain to where we were born to harvest maize. I couldn’t believe it – they harvested a lot of maize from this wet, cool area where previously it was not cultivated. And this change is in one generation. There are streams that used to have water all year round – we are talking about 50 years ago – which now don’t. So these kinds of things transform climate change from a theoretical subject to one you can track on the ground. I have looked at photos of Kilimanjaro taken in the 1940s, and compared them to photos of today: then, the mountain was completely vegetated, and there was a lot more snow there when I was a kid … so the pace of change is fast. A research student of mine developed temperature profiles for the Moshe area, plotted over 30 years, in which you see a significant increase in the graph; the rainfall is diminishing too.” Other studies confirm significant land use change on Kilimanjaro’s slopes, with impacts on biodiversity and erosion.

He goes on to describe how initially, because climate change was spoken of in relation to the Kyoto Protocol, he felt a sense of rebellion – “you know, the developed world, they don’t want to move an inch, while dictating to Africa that we should not cut our trees. I agree with conserving our forests, but I thought ‘you are the wrong guys to tell us that, as you don’t take the necessary actions’. America does not move, and here they are, telling a poor guy that he cannot even cook his food.” So his perspective was that unless the developed world really cleaned up their mess, they should not preach to Africa, given our more serious developmental problems.

But his viewpoint changed after working on water in the environmental arena for some time, and experiencing water shortages not only in the cities but also in some rural areas. He saw significant decreases in water quality too, linked to drought associated with climate change. He goes on to explain “So then, I started to orientate myself towards providing solutions for people to mitigate these water problems, such as rainwater harvesting and systems to clean the water for domestic purposes. In some areas the dam water was so filthy that you would not want to use it to wash your hands, but this is what we were drinking. These are the things that have driven me to put a lot of effort into climate change issues.”

Karoli works in the solution space, rather than the observational and diagnostic realms of climate science. He is concerned with how he can best contribute through his primary lens of water research, which involves wastewater treatment through constructed wetlands as well as industrial processes.

But Karoli exists as a water person in more than one sense. He has a deep identification with the vitality and life force of water and verdant environments. As he says, “If I am travelling in an arid place, I cannot identify with the surroundings. I could not even contemplate living in the Middle East, places like Qatar or Dubai, not with all the riches they have. To me, water and a green ecosystem are very important. When flying through these dry places, I realise how much water means to me.”

I am struck by the imagery he uses, and how the thought of the future as a barren planet is frightening to him – and to me too. As Karoli says, “It’s very easy to make a desert, but very difficult to go back to a situation where you have all of the flowing water and green cover.”

I explored links with cultural elements and beauty with him, asking him whether there is a piece of art, poetry or literature, that inspires him and that he uses to make meaning. I was trying to understand if there was something that might comfort him when thinking about his fears for an increasingly arid planet, and hoping that it might cast some light on my fears too. And I was really taken by the depth of his identification with the natural world, which I feel too.

He said “If you want to know something that touches my heart, I often have the feeling that I could just lie on the ground with very long arms and embrace it – it’s the green vegetation and the preciousness of water that strikes me in this way. When I see the green beauty and peace of mountains and hills, this inspires a sense of contentment. It’s not art that really does this for me, it’s the landscape.”

Like me, he loves to cast his eyes downwards from the window seat of an aircraft to view the landscape, but what he is most hoping to see is green land covered with waters, not barren, desolate landscapes. Unsurprisingly, he links this to his childhood, to growing up on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

It is clear that Karoli feels a deep sense of oneness with verdant landscapes and flowing water. This means it is also quite painful for him to see the changes occurring around Kilimanjaro, such as the reduction in tree cover from agricultural expansion. He describes how his birthplace was so cradled within the tree canopy that driving along the access roads was like being in the middle of a forest. When you flew over the mixed farming area, with bananas and coffee grown within the trees on a farm, the dense tree cover hid all signs of agriculture.

But now houses are clearly visible as the canopy is diminishing rapidly. Despite strong regulations now in place preventing people from cutting down any trees without a permit, the change is, in his words, “really amazing”. We laugh together, but it is a wry laughter.

I then asked Karoli “So the landscape is a source of comfort, and it really feeds you, do you think in any way it helps you to respond practically?”

His response was decisive: “Absolutely, now that I am thinking about it, because I just love working on projects to restore landscapes – such as around Kilimanjaro International Airport in the lowlands, which is heavily eroded due to overgrazing and other causes. I look for facts, for ways to be able to restore landscapes, but now that I think about this, it could be driven by the comfort and meaning I find in the landscapes, the green beauty.”

He goes on to explain: “I know I love water and I cannot live anywhere without water, it’s the combination of the water and the vegetation around it. For example, the wetlands and the mountains in Lesotho, the presence of the water flowing all around, which I find very beautiful – it has to do with the combination of elements.”

He feels that the psychological effects of loss of wilderness and natural areas with harmonious human-ecosystem interactions will be profound. As he says, “unfortunately we are losing these very fast. I think that for the people who have this sense of identification, albeit unspoken, the losses will drive people to protect landscapes. A person like me who does not like barren land wants to use every opportunity to protect and cover the earth. I haven’t designed this feeling, it just happens. So now imagine a situation where there is no flowing water, just craters and erosion everywhere, I think a lot of people are going to be very, very frustrated without knowing what is causing this. They will be missing something that they cannot put their finger on, but they will feel bad. I can imagine it’s like a person who was used to living in the countryside, and is forced to live in a very congested area, he does not feel good, he would have the same frustrations.”

We agree that despite certain narratives to the contrary, poor people too have this need. As Karoli says, “They have an identity with the land, and with their living environments. You see that with many people who have been living in some place, you cannot get them to move away from where they call their home.”

“Because they are attached to it”, I add.

“Yes. You know, my father is very old now, and I cannot get him to spend even two weeks in Dar es Salaam. He comes here, enjoys playing with his grandchildren, but immediately wants to go back to where he is more accustomed, or he will get sick. It’s due to a combination of factors, friends too, but the environment I think is very important. So I would never say that poor people lack these feelings.”

We are interrupted, and pause our talk here, both aware of a sense of existential malaise engendered by our environmental and climate challenges. But I have a feeling this is not the end of our conversation, and look forward to further exploring more the hopeful channels for change as well with this deeply thinking and feeling man, someone I am privileged to call a colleague.


Diminishing snow and ice, Mount Kilimanjaro

Source: NASA Earth Observatory, 2012. 


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