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A soft solution for wetlands

IBM software is saving Uganda. By Roger Ridey
Although it sounds like the latest release from the boffins at id Software and includes warnings such as "watch out for crocodiles", you won't find Swamp on any computer game bestseller lists this Christmas. Swamp isn't another blast-'em-to-bits CD-Rom game, but a software program developed by IBM to promote the management of threatened tropical wetland areas in Uganda.

Swamp (Sustainable Wetland Areas Management Project), developed by IBM Global Services in Portsmouth, was the brainchild of Dr Mark Everard, an expert in freshwater biology at the Environment Agency, while he was a project manager at IBM.

"While at IBM, I became frustrated to see that the best technology, which those with commercial needs could afford, took many years to get into the hands of those scientists involved with genuinely improving the natural environment; it is from this background of frustration and expertise that the idea of Swamp was born," Dr Everard explained.

Dr Everard took the idea for Swamp to the then chairman of IBM, Sir Tony Cleaver. "Tony was very receptive to business initiatives connected with the environment, and indeed went on to chair the national Business in the Environment group," he said.

Along with Professor Patrick Denny, of the International Institute for Infrastructural, Hydrological and Environmental Engineering in Holland, an authority on wetland ecosystems, Dr Everard provided the IBM developers with the expertise in wetlands management that allowed them to create the easy-to-use program that can be loaded on a laptop computer.

"Uganda is now developing rapidly and placing growing demands upon its diverse yet vulnerable wetland resource," Dr Everard said. "Identifying sustainable options for wetland development was foremost in the minds of the Ugandan government, Patrick and myself. This would enable the demands of a growing population and economy to be taken into account alongside the need to preserve the ecosystem integrity."

The Swamp program consists of a series of questions on maximum depth of the whole wetland, major vegetation type, soil acidity and related topics. Answered by environmental officers in the field, the program goes back to Swamp, who make recommendations as to optimal, suitable or possible options for sustainable development of the area.

Bernie Cammell, of IBM Global Services, said Swamp is bridging the gap between expert knowledge in Europe and people in Africa. "This is going to put a significant subset of Professor Denny's knowledge into the hands of people who can use it on a daily basis," he said.

While the Swamp program was developed for Ugandan wetlands management, Dr Everard would like to see it adapted for other areas. "Flexibility of architecture was foremost in our minds during development," he said.

Swamp is based on sound ecological principles. The dialogue boxes are sometimes geographically specific regarding native species of plants or traditional uses of the land, but these can be adapted to local conditions quite readily. There is scope to cheaply adapt Swamp to tropical Africa and, at least theoretically, to wetlands elsewhere in the world. "The same modular approach could be used to support decisions on rainforests, savannah, coastal seas and other conditions," Dr Everard said. "Clearly, this would be a major development initiative as a different set of ecological principles would apply."

While Swamp is helping Ugandans learn how to look after their wetlands, Dr Everard, who is developing a national wetland strategy for the UK, thinks we in turn could learn something from the developing world.

"The Third World is way ahead of us in seriously tackling the issue of habitat conservation - perhaps from the advantage of starting from a lower base of development - and thereby protecting the benefits that they confer," he says. "The educated minds of the First World generally consider wetland protection to be purely a `bolt-on goodie' concerned primarily with nature conservation. This is not the case. Wetlands do valuable jobs for nature and society"n