The world’s most urgent water challenges are invisible to the naked eye: the availability and state of our groundwater, the global streams of so-called virtual water, and the impact water has on people, nature, and economies.

Dr Brighton Chunga of Malawi is working on computerised hydrological models to simulate the characteristics of the country’s river basins – making past and future, upstream and downstream movements within catchments that lead to conflicts in water demand - visible. The exercise aims to simulate and predict river basin closure of hot-spot catchments and devise restoration programs to ensure water security for social and economic development.

Malawi’s water is under severe pressure from all sides: The country supports an agri-based economy, increasing industrialisation and hydroelectric power generation for its’ electrical needs – all whilst facing environmental degradation such as deforestation and the resulting climate change. High population growth numbers have increased water demand for domestic and municipal use, irrigation, tourism, mining, manufacturing, and water transportation.

While the country has made tremendous efforts in conserving, allocating, and utilising water resources in the face of these threats, challenges are intensifying. Dr Chunga’s FAR-LeaF project – Determination of river basin closure and catchment restoration in Malawi – proposes futuristic thinking by holistically predicting the basin closure of key catchment areas. Computer models will enable his team to run system dynamics simulations to understand future scenarios of water resources in the targeted river basins. This FAR-LeaF research fellow is an irrigation and water resources management professional who loves combining his years of hands-on experience in irrigation management with his academic skills as a researcher.

By predicting when a catchment will no longer be able to supply water to meet social and environmental needs, the project will produce evidence on which the catchment restoration and protection actions will be based. Currently, such actions are implemented with very little scientific evidence – and provide primarily short-term answers to real water supply problems for both human consumption and ecosystem support. “After careful assessments of the catchments and analysing the river basin closures, catchments will be classified as either closed, nearing closure, or open – and resources allocated accordingly,” explains Dr Chunga.

His research team will quantify surface and groundwater resources in selected catchments and river basins for appropriate water allocation by the National Water Resources Authority, implement activities to restore degraded catchments – and protect those under threat.

After careful assessments of the catchments and analysing the river basin closures, catchments will be classified as either closed, nearing closure, or open – and resources allocated accordingly.

This includes training farmers and communities surrounding the targeted catchments regarding different entrepreneurial skills to empower them in other or future income generating businesses.

The research will employ a mixed-method research design, including hydrological modelling exercises, computing abstractions by users in particular catchments, in-depth interviews, and focus group discussions. While working with the International Water Management Institute, he developed his system-dynamic-based water allocation model and has since also dabbled in water rights and allocation. Dr Chunga is a postdoctoral researcher at Stellenbosch University and a lecturer at Mzuzu University’s Department of Water and Sanitation in the Faculty of Environmental Sciences.

Heidi Sonnekus | FAR-LeaF Program


The Future Africa Research Leader Fellowship (FAR-LeaF) is a fellowship programme, focussed on developing transdisciplinary research and leadership skills, to address the complex, inter-linked challenges of health, well-being, and environmental risks in Africa.