Sugar cane plantations and water quality in Swaziland

Debbie Smith is a third-year BSc (Hons) Geography and Environmental Management student at UWE, who travelled to Swaziland in the summer of 2015 as part of the UWE Global Water Security Project.

DS presentsMy research aimed to investigate whether commercial farming along the Komati River in Swaziland has any impacts on the water quality in the river. To achieve this I took water samples along a 55 mile stretch of the river, analysing the water to understand the levels of macro nutrients in each sample. These macro nutrients are nitrate, phosphate and potassium and are the main nutrients used in fertilisers needed on sugar cane plantations which grow on either side of the river.

This river is a lifeline and understanding the quality of the water is essential to a community that uses it for washing, as drinking water for their cattle, and for irrigating sugar cane which is sold on the world market. As well as the financial benefits that come from growing this cash crop, environmental impacts can occur where excessive nutrients can enter the water, leading to eutrophication or creating toxic conditions for the soil.

To allow me to achieve this research I was hosted by RMI, a local NGO based in Swaziland who have established an excellent reputation through local community engagement by empowering people and farmers by developing skills, knowledge and self-belief. RMI aim to empower people through sustainable businesses as well as considering environmental impacts. They were keen to understand the impacts of farming sugar cane so they could improve the methods used in future projects.

DS testing kitsMy results indicated that the further downstream past large scale plantations, the higher the concentration of nutrients were in each water sample. After analysing and interpreting my results, I set up a meeting with the farmers to show and explain the basic science behind these results. We were able to discuss possible solutions to improve impacts such as ensuring fertilisers were used in the correct way with accurate amounts.

These good agricultural practices link to Bonsucro and Fairtrade, who work with farmers to ensure excellent agricultural practices, resulting in premiums and grants of money that can be awarded to ensure these practices continue. We also discussed water usage and I was able to explain that water and fuel was being wasted due to irrigating crops during the hottest part of the day and placing the sprinkler in the wrong locations, such as next to a path.

DS teachingI made many links whilst in Swaziland. One of them was with a local school where I taught over 160 agricultural students about my research and how to farm in a sustainable and sensible way. I felt that teaching younger students was taking on RMI’s ethos of educating, not giving, which in the long term is more sustainable and rewarding.

This experience has been incredible and has given me confidence and self-belief in my academic work. As well as achieving excellent results to go towards my final year dissertation, I have also gained experience in working in a community, working with a translator and educating others on sustainable practices. My long term aim is to look at ways to clean water through simple methods such as using reed beds to filter out excessive nutrients and I hope to travel to Africa again in the near future!