Quest to save troubled waters


By Elita Soko:

RAMPANT IN MALAWI—Water pollution

The bitter taste of an African cake (chikondamoyo) stirred the mind of young Emmanuel Vellemu.

It was the discovery, however, that the flavour might have been linked to the origins of the cooking pot used for baking the cake which set him on course to becoming a water resource scientist, specialising in ecotoxicology.


“It turned out that the pot was hand-made from an old metal of a nearby university hostel geyser. The colour was the paint of the geyser,” Vellemu says.

“I became suspicious to know the effects of paint in my body.”

It is this kind of curiosity and interest in the co-dependency between nature and humanity that has led to Vellemu, now a PhD holder, becoming the first Malawian ever to win the German Green Talents Competition.


The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) hosts the Green Talents – International Forum for High Potentials in Sustainable Development every year to promote the international exchange of innovative green ideas from various fields of research.

The winners of the Green Talents Award come from various countries and scientific disciplines and are recognised for their achievements in making societies more sustainable.

This year, Vellemu became one of 25 up-and-coming researchers selected from among 589 applicants from 87 countries. Selected by a jury of German experts, he and 24 others will be granted access to the country’s research elite.

So what was his innovative green idea and from what field of research was it?

Scientists who deal in nature issues have been painting a bleak picture of the future if trends on the environmental front were not improve.

Whenever the topic comes up, visions of the world as it is get replaced by pictures of bare barren lands, dried-up rivers and overflowing oceans—in the case of the polar areas where thinning ice caps are a major cause for worry.

It has now been ingrained in people’s minds that nature will in time treat humanity exactly how humanity treats it.

And Vellemu’s research focused on ecosystem services.

An ecosystem service is considered any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems (a network of living and non-living organisms) provide to people.

With water resource science as his field of expertise, Vellemu does bio-physical research in experimental ecotoxicology.

“My work balances resource protection and use, so I am looking at the services that people benefit from nature and how those benefits impact the environment,” Vellemu says.

His research relates to Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation; and 14: Life below water, to support efforts for clean water and sanitation and to ensure that aquatic organisms are protected.

He did work focused on stressor response particularly regarding acid mine drainage, sediments, industrial effluent, salt as toxicants and salinisation as a stressor exacerbated by climate change and anthropogenic activities.

In recent years, Malawi has been plagued with challenges related to water bodies such as rivers becoming dumping sites for industrial and human waste.

The challenge has, in the past, seen various stakeholders holding clean-up exercises of the said water bodies. The sad trend, however, continues. Rivers whose waters have ceased to be clear run murky and subject the people existing around them to putrefying smells.

“Even in the absence of scientific data, water pollution is quite evident across Malawi’s surface and groundwater resources,” Vellemu observes.

He adds: “Most rivers where we have conducted bio-monitoring studies indicate poor water quality judging by the presence or absence of certain aquatic organisms that act as indicators of pollution.”

The researcher believes engaging people from the grassroots—that is from primary through to tertiary school—on the importance of preserving and protecting resources such as water is a big part of the solution.

“In the end, we have to go back to the basics such as tree planting for ecological restoration, promote citizen science on issues of sustainability among communities and schools, among others,” he says.

But Vellemu’s plans go way beyond engagement with communities.

“We are also exploring ways through which drone technology can help in solving water pollution challenges in Malawi.

“Currently, in the Department of Water Resources of Ndata School of Climate and Earth Sciences at [Malawi University of Science and Technology], we use drones to aid in river water sampling and assessments. Additionally, my work will explore water treatment technologies that can help detoxify contaminants in wastewater around us,” he explains.

United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, which is responsible for coordinating UN’s environmental activities, has a challenge in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to develop and enhance integrated approaches to sustainable development.

These approaches are meant to demonstrate how improving the health of the environment will bring social and economic benefits.

Research, such as that which Vellemu has been and is conducting could be what the world, particularly the developing community, needs to lessen environmental degradation and its impacts and in turn maximise on the benefits which nature brings to humanity.

Asked if Malawi has a chance to actually save her water bodies, his resource of interest, Vellemu responds: “Yes, great opportunities exist if we do things right and at the right time. These should be supported by favourable policies.”

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