About ARS AfricaE

Adaptive Resilience of Southern African Ecosystems
Project period: 2014/08/01 – 2017/07/31


Project Overview

The ARS AfricaE project investigates the coupled carbon and water cycles of natural and disturbed savanna ecosystems in Southern Africa. It aims to deepen the knowledge on ecosystem functions of rural communities in Southern Africa. This knowledge is crucial for the prediction of the feedback between ecosystem response to continuous pressure like climate change or to disturbances like land use change on one hand and to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations on the other. Results will help forming better management strategies of savanna ecosystems. ARS AfricaE is a joint research project with four German and six South African partner institutions. The Thünen Institute of Climate-Smart Agriculture takes the overall coordination of the project.

Importance for Application in Southern Africa

We assume that natural ecosystems in Southern Africa have a high resilience since disturbances such as fire or drought are very common. Many plant species are highly adapted to these disturbances. Nevertheless, it is very important to gain information about the thresholds of resilience and the factors that define these thresholds in order to apply this knowledge.

Southern Africa is affected by several severe problems that are directly or indirectly linked to global climate change. Drought, desertification, floods, fire, deforestation and loss of biodiversity affect ecosystems, while the social systems have to face poverty, population growth, insecure fresh water availability and food security. Therefore, it is one of the regions most vulnerable to climatic change due to both ecological and socio-economic factors. Furthermore, the region is one of the fastest developing parts of the world. Land use is changing very dynamically, partly driven by international investors. The consequences of this development in terms of ecosystem structure and function, GHG emissions or biodiversity losses are hardly known.

By placing emphasis on managing savannas for sustainable rural livelihoods, ARS AfricaE will combine the basic ecological knowledge with socio-economic factors. Despite the rapid roll-out of rural electrification in Southern Africa in the last two decades, wood biomass remains the dominant energy source for cooking in most communal areas, such as the rural districts west of the Kruger National Park in the central Lowveld of Mpumalanga, South Africa. Pervasive poverty in these communities constrains the ability of rural households to switch to other available energy carriers such as electricity, even in contexts where local fuelwood supply has become severely limited. Wood supply-and-demand models have highlighted potentially unsustainable rates of woody biomass extraction from these communal savanna woodlands at various spatial scales. Indeed, substantial changes in savanna composition and structure as a result of intensive wood harvesting are well documented in the central Lowveld. At Zambia long-distance transport of charcoal has strong impact on wood usage and leads also to unsustainable usage. This has implications for ecosystem function and the future provision of ecosystem services such as fuelwood, edible wild fruit, and medicinal plants. While the drivers and impacts of human disturbance in these communal landscapes are now relatively well understood, appropriate models for promoting resilience and sustainable resource use and management remain elusive.

The Team