UKZN Hosts SAYAS Water Security Colloquium
More than 60 delegates - including students, academics, civil society representatives, municipal managers and politicians - attended a two-day interdisciplinary colloquium on water security presented by the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) in collaboration with the School of Life Sciences.
The colloquium, which took place at UKZN, was designed to specifically address the following themes:
· Public expectations and municipal obligations regarding water quality
· Water reuse – health and infrastructural considerations
· Water security and governance – challenges and advances
The guests were welcomed by the Dean of Research, Professor Urmilla Bob, while top SA water researcher and Hydrologist Emeritus Professor Roland Schulze of UKZN opened the colloquium with a thought-provoking talk titled: “Water Security Dimensions in South Africa”.
Co-chair of SAYAS and organiser of the colloquium, Dr Sershen Naidoo, said: ‘Professor Schulze’s talk set the stage for a highly stimulating colloquium on a number of controversial issues within the water sector.’
The first session on public expectations and municipal obligations regarding water quality, facilitated by Professor Chris Buckley of UKZN’s Pollution Research Group and Mr Christopher Fennemore of eThekwini Municipality, highlighted a number of challenges faced by municipalities around the country.
Challenges included lack of and/or dysfunctional infrastructure, rapid urbanisation and uninformed decision-making.
There were a number of engaging discussions around the importance of striking a balance between citizen rights and government obligations, and fostering public responsibility. A key outcome of the session was that unrealistic political promises were giving rise to unrealistic public expectations within a number of municipalities.
Apart from articulating the value of the Blue and Green Drop Assessment programmes, a number of participants expressed their support for government and public awareness campaigns, increased re-use of waste water, harnessing the benefits of ecological infrastructure, and the introduction of rising block-tariffs.
SARChI Chair in Water and Wastewater Technology at the Durban University of Technology, Professor Thor Axel Stenström, and Professor Stefan Schmidt of the Discipline of Microbiology on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus, facilitated the second session on Water Reuse - Health and Infrastructural Considerations.
The two Microbiologists illustrated that a sustainable water management strategy had to account for factors such as urbanisation, projected water scarcity, high water use in agriculture as well as the water footprint of consumers and industry.
One of the key points to emerge from the discussions was that re-use of water in the urban context, in agriculture and for energy production was possible but needed to be well balanced against potential risks due to the presence of disease-causing organisms, antibiotics and emerging organic pollutants.
The second day kicked-off with a session on: “Water Security and Governance - Challenges and Advances”, facilitated by Ms Nora Hanke of Stellenbosch University’s Water Institute who is also Vice-Chair of the South African Young Water Professionals, and Dr Mark Dent of UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences.
The discussions during the session suggested that water security could not be addressed in a fragmented manner by scientists since each individual, discipline or organisational grouping only had knowledge of a small part of the overall system.
It was stated that when working in fragmented silos the system suffered from the bounded rationality (i.e. a person can only perform rational acts within the bounds of their cognition) of each of the actors. Dent emphasised that when acting on water-related matters, which by definition cross boundaries, problems were created with solutions if they were generated in a silo of thinking.
The session went on to briefly explore the migration of human skills within the water sector and why the Policy, Legislative and Regulatory frameworks, from local to international levels, were all in place for good governance and to address water security.
Dent and Hanke gave evidence for their contention that with appropriate thinking and sharing South Africa had the human and financial resources to significantly reduce water-related risks and cope with the challenges ahead.
Participatory agent-based social simulation modelling and citizen science were introduced as two of the most promising vectors of change sweeping the water governance landscape.
According to Dent, scientists should recognise that all water-related decision-making processes have two broad stages: firstly, the option generation stage which is open to all actors and secondly, the authority stage where the best option is decided on and made mandatory.
The water authorities therefore, could not take systemically wise decisions, unless presented with several wise options. Based on the discussion that took place during the session, the option generation space was open to all and was the key focus area for actors to engage water security and governance.
In commenting on the success of the event, Dr Sershen Naidoo stressed how important it was for universities to play a role in finding solutions to national problems such as water security. Naidoo confirmed that the colloquium’s major output, a consensus document put together with the aid of the Municipal Institute of Learning (MILE), would be shared with government, civil society and academics across the country and in the Southern African region with the help of SAYAS.
Photograph by Asok Rajah