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Saving Water, Saving Gorillas

March 22 is World Water Day, an annual United Nations event started in 1993 to focus on the importance of freshwater. In 2021, the theme of the day is “valuing water”: A growing global population means more demand for water in industry and agriculture, while at the same time, climate change is affecting access to sources of clean water globally.

The Fossey Fund is known for our work to save endangered wild gorillas and their biodiverse habitat. What you might not know is that we’re also committed to using water responsibly and to restoring delicate wetlands at our new Ellen DeGeneres Campus, which is scheduled to open later this year in Rwanda.

Vegetated swale with stone base that directs rainwater to the infiltration ponds.- MASS DESIGN GROUP

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The entire Campus has been designed with rainwater harvesting in mind. During the rainy season in Rwanda, it isn’t uncommon to see 10 inches or more of precipitation per month in the mountains where the gorillas live. All of this rain has to go somewhere, and the runoff can cause soil erosion and habitat loss. We’ve found a way to prevent this erosion and use this water responsibly through a drainage system built into the Campus facility, where all water that drains from the main Campus roofs is collected and stored in underground tanks. The water is later pumped back into the buildings to flush toilets.

All of our main Campus buildings have green roofs—rooftops that are covered in layers of native plant material. Instead of causing flooding, rainwater is absorbed by these plant layers, which slowly release the water over time, preventing erosion. And rain that falls elsewhere on the Campus flows into a system of swales—low-lying marshy areas where water can collect—and infiltration basins created by our partners at MASS Design Group to absorb runoff and allow the water to infiltrate.

Construction of the underground Anaerobic Baffled Reactor (ABR) for the wastewater treatment wetland.- MASS DESIGN GROUP

What About Wastewater?

All wastewater that is generated on site from toilets, sinks, showers and kitchens will be treated on site in a constructed wetland, a natural system using a sequence of basins with

plants and soil to treat the waste. This treated water can then be sent to mulch basins around trees, which absorb the water through their roots. The wetland requires no energy to operate, since the water simply flows through the system using the force of gravity, and it reduces stress on local potable water systems. It also provides critical habitat where native plants and insects will thrive—and because the plants are all native to the area, it will require minimal maintenance.

MASS Design Group’s Harriet Kirk, senior engineer for the Ellen Campus, estimates that rainwater harvesting can save around 550 cubic meters [145,295 gallons] of water per year. It also reduces operating costs and lowers energy use, shrinking our carbon footprint. And it will serve as a model for future projects, demonstrating how sustainable techniques can save money while also protecting the environment.

“The Fossey Fund has been in the field for more than five decades, working to protect gorillas and their habitat,” says Fossey Fund’s CEO and Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Tara Stoinski. “We are proud of the fact that our new Ellen Campus will serve as a model for future conservationists who want to do critical science and protection work in a sustainable way.”

Aerial view of the wastewater treatment wetland under construction.- MASS DESIGN GROUP

About the Campus:

The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund will be the permanent headquarters of the Fossey Fund’s activities. Its mission is to inspire and educate the next generation of conservationists in Africa and beyond. They will be trained to tackle the conservation challenges of the future and to ensure the survival of gorillas and their biodiverse forest home. The multi-acre, eco-friendly facility adjacent to the Volcanoes National Park will include laboratories, a computer lab and library, flexible office and meeting space, classrooms, an interactive educational exhibit and on-site residences for visiting students and scientists. Built with locally-sourced materials and supplies, the Ellen Campus will embody the Fossey Fund’s mission to conserve and limit its impact on the environment, through rainwater harvesting, green roofs, the planting of over 250,000 native plant species and a constructed wetland to treat wastewater and promote biodiversity.