power station






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a close‑up of the Portia widow dragonfly




I grew up in the African country of Rwanda. I lived in a village close to a wetland, rich in rivers and streams. The most outstanding memory of my childhood is swimming and playing with friends in those rivers. I remember trying to catch dragonflies as they flew along the water’s surface. We had a nickname for them: “Flying Flowers of the River.” Over time, I began to see fewer and fewer dragonflies, and I wondered why. This is where my interest to study wetlands, streams, rivers, and lakes came from.

Rwanda is often called the “land of a thousand hills.” In the shadow of the extinct Muhabura volcano sit two lakesLake Burera and, next to it, Lake Ruhondo. Nestled in this mountain valley, you will find the Rugezi Marsh. This wetland covers a wide area and is dominated by grasses. Rugezi regulates, retains, and filters the water that flows into the lakes. This is one of the sites where I do a lot of my work in Rwanda.

The marsh is important for Grauer’s swamp warbler, an endangered bird. More than 60 percent of the swamp warbler’s population is found here. Rugezi also hosts a large population of breeding grey crowned cranes, which are also endangered. More than 40 species of birds rely on the marsh, but people do, too.

The marsh provides villages with food and water for drinking, agriculture, and sanitation. It is also a source of power. Water, which seeps through the marsh, feeds Lake Burera, which in turn feeds the hydroelectric Ntaruka power station.

In Rwanda, the dwarf percher dragonfly can only be found in Rugezi Marsh.

Facing a Crisis

Years ago, my country suffered an energy crisis. It was triggered by a steep drop in power produced by the power station. Water levels in Lake Burera had dropped to record lows. It was no secret why. We had not taken care of the Rugezi marshland. There was too much human activity and not enough rainfall to replenish this ecosystem.

Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in all of Africa. More than 60 percent of the population depends on agriculture, which puts a lot of pressure on its wetlands.

In the last two decades, we’ve tried to restore the Rugezi marshland by halting certain drainage and agricultural activities. We’ve tried to limit hunting and fishing, too. Some of our efforts are working.

And believe it or not, the “Flying Flowers” of my childhood might be part of the solution! I created a method of using dragonflies to monitor the water quality of the marsh.

A violet dropwing dragonfly rests on a branch.

Signs of Health

It turns out, dragonflies are good indicators of the health of a wetland. How? Dragonflies are very sensitive to their environment. They spend most of their life cycle in the water. For them to thrive, the water must be clean. They also need healthy plants nearby to help them hide from predators.

So, the presence of dragonflies at Rugezi is a sign of good health. What’s more, creating a dragonfly-based monitoring system can help us to identify areas that need to be protected or protected areas that need to be expanded.

It’s also something local communities can do. We can train people to become citizen scientists to search for and record the presence of dragonflies. As the marsh continues to recover over time, I am confident that we will see more and more "flying flowers" of the river!