River ecologist Sukh Mantel, a senior researcher at the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University, did not set out to create art, or even an educational tool. She was just trying to make a quick point.
After her partner sent her a cool map of rivers in the United States, she wanted to show that similar data exists for South Africa. She happened to know where the data could be found, and she also knows her way around geographical information systems, so it took her about 10 minutes to whip up her first map.
"Then I found some errors in it," she says. Cleaning it up took another two-and-a-half hours. That left her with this:
That views shows nothing that most South Africans don't already know about the country, she insists. South Africa's coastal areas are drained by a number of smaller rivers, while mountains to the south and the escarpment sends water from the interior on a far longer journey to the ocean.
Yet, when she posted the image online, it proved hugely popular.
Business Insider contacted Mantel after we saw the image circulated widely on Facebook and pop up on various other networks. Various other groups had also reached out to her, Mantel told us, to such an extent that she had set up a download page for a high-resolution version of the map.
"People say it would have helped them in high school, or that it clarified for them how things are connected," she says. But nobody has managed to clearly express just why they feel the need to share it with others – beyond pointing out how different it is from the usual maps of rivers in South Africa.
Mantel has since set up a survey to ask interested people about the map.
She's not entirely sure what she will do with the results yet.
"I'm hoping to turn this into some sort of popular article eventually," she says.
"Maybe if we understand how this kind of presentation helps people, we can make it clearer how dams break up connections, how what happens upstream affects areas downstream.
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