Exciting water research partnership launched

A woman from the Quarry Rd informal settlement washing clothes
at the polluted Palmiet Stream – a governance failure

The uMngeni River Basin is our collective life-blood – we rely on its water for our homes and businesses; we irrigate our crops; we collect food and medicinal plants from its wetlands; we marvel at its beauty; we worship along its river banks, and we paddle, boat, fish and swim in its rivers, streams and dams.

In the river basin our understanding of the system’s hydrology and ecology is good. Also, our capacity to capture water from the system, process it and harness it for our needs is considerable. And yet we find ourselves in a situation which is, quite frankly, a mess. Water quality is poor and deteriorating; water wastage is high; alien invasive plants run rampant; natural flows are disrupted; human and ecological health is compromised; regulatory enforcement is weak; rural residents are regularly deprived of equitable access to the resource, and we are inadequately prepared to deal with the current drought. In short we are constantly compromising the very life-blood that sustains us.

The source of many of the problems we face does not lie in failures of our natural or engineered systems; it resides in failures of governance – the failure of our political, social, economic and administrative systems that influence water resource planning, use and management. While our individual and collective understanding of these issues under the umbrella of water resource governance is growing and good knowledge is being generated, there is very little to indicate that this knowledge is reaching and influencing the intended users. Also, there is a need to fundamentally increase social sciences and others to engage with the issues. Finally, individual researchers in the uMngeni are currently not unified around a common research agenda.

Increasing pollution levels in the Msunduzi River at Pietermaritzburg – a governance failure
Increasing pollution levels in the Msunduzi River at Pietermaritzburg
– a governance failure

With this in mind a group of social and natural scientists gathered recently to plot a way forward. The main aim was to get to know each other better and learn about relevant projects that are currently undertaken by the researchers. The intended outcome of the get-together was to establish a common identity and identify key research needs and key partners as well as to establish a basis for collaboration and, through that, to begin the process of establishing a shared research agenda.

For our first session – a one and a half day workshop – we created a ‘safe space’ in order to meet our aims and thus, limited participation to researchers rather than practitioners and managers. Participants included colleagues from the CSIR, the Institute of Natural Resources, Monash South Africa, South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Urban Earth and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA); there were twenty people in all. While other organisations and individuals are also operating in this space the group does represent a large portion of the water research effort focused on the uMngeni River Basin.

The uMngeni and upper-Mooi River Basins

The workshop was a great success and has left the attendees with much enthusiasm, and many ideas and tasks. Researchers were able to get to know each other at a personal and professional level. Of particular interest was that at least seven participants were engaged in doctoral research. The range of interests was considerable and was not confined to research. It included direct support for management efforts, capacity development of key stakeholders such as municipal officials and traditional leaders, and a large body of research attempting to unpack the river basin as a social-ecological system.

We established a common identity under the banner of the ‘uMngeni School of Water Governance Research’ linked to the already well recognised uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership. Recognising that the creation of knowledge is an ongoing interaction between all stakeholders we were able to identify a broad range of potential research partners and key stakeholders. These ranged from civil society, through NGOs and the private sector to various spheres of government.

Finally the uMngeni School of Water Governance Research established the foundations for a common research agenda, creating a short-term ‘to-do’ list, and assigning roles and responsibilities – watch this space!