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Rx for Africa's Rift Valley Lakes

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malawi.jpgHow many times has someone stood at the edge of an ecosystem in disarray and thought, "If only we had known"?

Tom Johnson is hoping to make it one less than it otherwise might be.

For the past quarter century, Johnson, a Regents professor of geology with the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, has been studying the sediments of Lake Malawi, among the biggest of the big African lakes pocking the continental crease known as the East African Rift Valley. In the process, he's become intimately familiar with the huge ecological and economic roles the lakes play, providing food in the form of fish, water for irrigating croplands, rich habitat for an abundance of species, a venue for a growing tourist trade, and a major source of hydropower for the region.
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He has also become acutely aware of the "perfect storm" looming over the lakes as the climate warms and more people and a growing standard of living increase pressures on the rich ecosystems within and around them.

Wanting to do more for the vulnerable region than simply study it, Johnson applied for and received an IonE resident fellowship last year to take the first steps toward creating a mechanism for boosting the Rift Lakes region's resilience. With the help of funding and faculty connections provided through the fellowship, Johnson is putting together a plan for an interdisciplinary research and policy institute to be located near - and focused on - the Rift Valley lakes. His goal? To create a mechanism for guiding development in a way in which both economies and ecosystems can thrive.

"The pressures and potential for economic development are at an all-time high," Johnson says. "The Big Idea is one of capacity building - bringing together engineers, natural scientists, social scientists, policy makers and more from the region and from around the world to do it right."

Photos of Lake Malawi courtesy of Tom Johnson

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.