Collaborations target uniquely African solutions to water challenges

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Director of the IWR, Professor Nelson Odume (right), on a field trip at the Swartkops River
Director of the IWR, Professor Nelson Odume (right), on a field trip at the Swartkops River

Rhodes University’s Institute for Water Research (IWR) is responding to the threats to water quality and availability across the African continent by helping in the establishment of institutional partnerships to equip researchers and communities with the tools to respond to significant challenges.

Current examples include the EU-funded African Water Resources Mobility Network (AWaRMN) project, which has made funding available to 35 postgraduate students, who are being supported on full scholarships and trained on different aspects relating to the water-related challenges on the continent.

Students are placed at various partner universities around the continent, including Rhodes University, the University of Kinshasa, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Makerere University and Higher School of Hydraulics, Blida. 

“Through this initiative we are also promoting the exchange of students and staff to share experiences and solutions,” said Professor Nelson Odume, Director of the IWR.

The IWR is also leading a large research project on unlocking benefits from African water resources funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a national funding agency investing in science and research in the United Kingdom, “Through this project, in collaboration with our partner universities within the ARUA Water Centre of Excellence, we are looking at addressing pollution in cities and strengthening local capacity for equitable water resource sharing and use of catchments,” Prof Odume said.

This project is being implemented in Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal, Ethiopia and Uganda.

In addition, the IWR together with University of Ljubljana has been awarded the Africa-Europe Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) on Water Resources Management for a Sustainable and Just Future, which facilitates research into the pressing water challenges facing both Africa and Europe.

A similar global initiative is the establishment of the Future Earth Africa Sustainability Leadership Centre, which is being funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The Centre is a collaborative effort between Rhodes University and the Future Africa Campus at the University of Pretoria. Rhodes University’s IWR, the Environmental Learning Research Centre (ELRC) and the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) are all involved in the initiative. 

Prof Odume cites the declining quantity and quality due to pollution and over abstraction, systemic governance failure and implementation challenges, declining monitoring networks, increasing resource use due to population increases, and increasing resource variability associated with changing climates as the main water challenges on the continent.

These challenges are further compounded by inadequate human capacity and climate risks.

Prof Odume believes that dedicated research institutes, centres and units within higher education institutions have a critical role to play in addressing the water challenges faced by many countries in Africa.

These bodies can help in addressing the critical shortage of skilled personnel in the sector through structured postgraduate training and other forms of professional training programmes. “There is an urgent need to increase Africa’s human capacity in the field of water resources in order to develop socially-relevant solutions to water resource problems on the continent. The shortage of qualified and competent academics and professionals hinders Africa’s efforts in addressing the challenges facing the water sector,” he said.

This Africa-centric approach would avoid the current trend where foreign “experts” are often consulted on African issues, an approach which is not sustainable as the local context is often unacknowledged resulting in failure to provide long-term capacity development for Africa.

Based on the principle of engaged scholarship, Prof Odume said the IWR’s focus seeks to enable collaboration between students and community members in an effort to provide uniquely African responses and solutions to challenges.

Closer to home, the IWR, in partnership with local role-players, through a Belmont Forum-funded project, is engaging community members on issues facing local water supply in Nelson Mandela Municipality. They have also set up a groundwater model for the Fairview spring in Makana, which has been adapted over time with the intention of determining the reliability and sustainability of its water given the unreliable water supply system in the area. The model was started by Emeritus Prof Denis Hughes and further developed by Dr Jane Tanner from Rhodes University. 

The IWR has also been involved in borehole monitoring to determine the impact of the drought on ground water levels, as well as supporting the municipality to set up a water quality lab, which sadly did not come to fruition.

“The main issues affecting the water sector in Makana is that of systemic governance. Although the drought has had significant impact on the water supply system of the city, the primary driver of the challenges we experience today is mainly systemic governance failure,” he said.

“Our intention is to do research with the community, or the affected and interested stakeholders and actors. The benefit of this kind of research is that the problem is identified and framed with the communities, and the actual research is also done with them. By doing this, there is cross-learning between the academics and the non-academics – and knowledge that is co-created this way often gets readily taken up by the community,” Prof Odume said.

Water is one of Rhodes University’s priority research areas. To support this valuable initiative or some of our other water-focused projects, please visit: