Stories in Michigan

From Great Lakes to Great Lakes

African Women Scientists Travel 7,000+ Miles to Share Conservation Strategies to Protect the World’s Fresh Water

On the left is Lake Superior. The image transitions into Lake Tanganyika.
Great Lakes Miles apart, the North American Great Lakes and African Great Lakes have more in common than many realize. © Jason Whalen/©Patrick Doran

The World's Great Lakes

The African Great Lakes: Victoria, Albert, Edward, Tanganyika, Kivu, Malawi/Niassa/Nyasa and Turkana

The North American Great Lakes: Huron, Superior, Erie, Michigan and Ontario

Though they are thousands of miles apart, the North American Great Lakes and the African Great Lakes share more than a name. Collectively, the lakes support more than 100 million people and provide habitat for wildlife found nowhere else in the world. 

Invasive species, climate change and degraded water quality all impact these aquatic systems and their biodiversity. Freshwater fish native to Africa, including over 200 species of cichlids in Lake Tanganyika, face threats from invasive species just as their North American counterparts do. 

In 2014, The Nature Conservancy’s North American Great Lakes and Africa programs launched a “Great Lakes to Great Lakes Initiative” to meet the challenges facing the lakes and protect water quality for future generations.

“Whether standing at the shores of Lake Superior or Lake Tanganyika, you can’t help but become inspired by these vast bodies of water and share our passion for conservation with one another."

Patrick J. Doran, Ph.D.
Associate State Director, TNC in Michigan

The initiative is built upon 50 years of experience in the North American Great Lakes and a decade of strong partnership and action in Africa, and is aimed at sharing the knowledge, tools and programs necessary to effectively manage Great Lakes systems and address threats that cross borders.

This knowledge exchange between the Great Lakes continues today. In May of 2022, a delegation of nine scientists traveled from Africa to the Midwest to conduct research and share their work. This group of women are helping ensure more female scientists' perspectives are part of conversations surrounding fresh water. 

“Aquatic resources are faced with similar problems but different parts of the world experience these problems at different scales.

These issues cannot be solved by scientific approaches only. Gender inclusivity, diversity and indigenous knowledge should not be overlooked.”

2022 AWIS Cohort

2022 AWIS Cohort

The cohort includes women from five countries working on all seven African Great Lakes.

Meet the Cohort

African Women in Science Delegation

The African Women in Science (AWIS) program, led by the International Institute of Sustainable Development-African Center for Aquatic Research and Education Program (IISD-ACARE), supports and guides African women scientists to catalyze positive change on the African Great Lakes and their tributaries.

Historically, women have been under-represented in the sciences—leaving a void in the perspectives and knowledge used to develop critical solutions. IISD-ACARE developed this training and mentoring program to ensure that African women scientists have the support and resources they need to continue their work.

African Great Lakes (2:41) What are the African Great Lakes? Located in East Africa, this group of seven lakes span 10 countries and constitute 25% of the world's fresh water.

In May 2022, IISD-ACARE sent a delegation from their AWIS program to the North American Great Lakes. The cohort, consisting of teachers, fisheries experts, a meteorologist and PhD students, spent two weeks meeting with their North American counterparts.  

From sturgeon sampling with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a trip to the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, the international trip provided these early-career scientists with opportunities to learn methods for addressing Great Lakes issues from their peers.

TNC partnered with the organization to bring the scientists to the U.S., centering on the May 2022 Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting (JASM) and a leadership training with Inforum, a professional organization in Michigan that helps accelerate careers for women. The conference, which took place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the world’s largest gathering of aquatic experts.

“Attending the JASM conference was the best thing that ever happened to me in my career. I was able to share my research on the African Great Lakes with a larger community.

I was able to network with other researchers working in the same field as me and was so amazed to meet people whose work I have enjoyed reading and citing.”

Marie Claire Dusabe, Rwanda

The visiting scientists presented their own research and participated in roundtable discussions with other scientists at JASM to help continue collaborative relationships. Inforum hosted a leadership training for the visiting scientists and TNC staff met with members of the cohort for an evening of knowledge sharing. Continuing these important conversations is key for the future of fresh water.

The Importance of Fresh Water

Natural and human communities both depend on fresh water for survival. The North American Great Lakes alone provide drinking water for approximately 40 million people while the African Great Lakes impact the livelihood of around 62 million people. The lakes are also home to wildlife found nowhere else in the world and are critical for biodiversity.

A cichlid swims through the water.
Cichlids The African Great Lakes are home to more than 2,000 fish species. © Patrick Doran/TNC

Despite its importance, we don’t have an endless supply. Only 3% of the water on our planet is fresh water. The North American Great Lakes make up about 21% of this while the African Great Lakes make up 25%. The rest of this precious resource is found in places like glaciers, streams, rivers, ponds and wetlands.

Just like the Great Lakes systems, the issues we’re facing are big. But with the power of our global organization, we can fundamentally change the world’s freshwater future. Strong science, powerful partnerships and shared knowledge can help us manage these globally important systems across multiple jurisdictions. It’s hard work, but necessary so that our freshwater systems can continue to provide the resources our planet needs. People and nature depend on it.

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