By Matimu Shivambu
Last week, the Rhodes University Biotechnology Innovation Centre (RUBIC) officially launched a water testing facility at the Biological Sciences building. Various local stakeholders were in attendance for the launch, including University leadership and representatives from the Makana Local Municipality, the Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE) office, the Environmental Research Learning Centre (ELRC), the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) along with members of their community project called Action for Accountability and Makhanda Circle of Unity. The launch marked a turning point in Rhodes University's history and the broader Makhanda community.
RUBIC Director Professor Janice Limson heads up the facility and said it was an honour and a privilege to inaugurate the water testing facility. According to Professor Limson, she and her colleagues at RUBIC - as well as collaborators in the Rhodes University Faculty of Pharmacy - had been working towards developing and launching this facility for several years. The Biotechnology Innovation Centre will host the facility.
Funded through Prof Limson's DSI/NRF South African Research Chair and the National Research Foundation's Community of Practice grants, the launch of the water testing facility was the outcome of intentional community-engaged research and collaborative scientific research. The need for the facility has become more evident over recent years in Makhanda, with many people reliant on stored water supplies and natural water sources as the town's water crisis has continued.
Working closely with impacted communities, Professor Limson said that her team was able to develop a model for the water testing facility that would enable access to the facility for any citizen of Makhanda. Postdoctoral researchers from RUBIC, Dr Linda Khumalo and Dr Nhamo Mutingwende, working with Dr Martin Mickelsson of the ELRC, have extensively engaged community members about their specific needs and perspectives for the water testing facility. PSAM's "Action for Accountability" team, led by Andile Nayika, has also received training on how to collect water samples for further testing at the facility
Dr Mutingwende, who was instrumental in setting up the new laboratory that houses the facility, noted that engaging communities as partners guarantee immediate attention to common water challenges. He emphasised that the facility will ensure improvement in the public knowledge about the safety of the town's water service and a better understanding of the nature of the town's water concerns. He believes the RUBIC Water Testing facility will empower residents and generate fresh possibilities. There will be a significant transfer of information and skills through this facility. He noted that the facility would support testing of home water taps, rainwater tanks, and stored water and indicated that services would also be extended to companies and schools. Dr Mutingwende noted that the facility aims to be self-sufficient and will charge nominal fees. These fees would help cross-subsidise the pro bono monitoring of targeted water sources through its collaboration with PSAM. Makhanda Circle of Unity Programme Manager, Mr Sakhe Ntlabezo, remarked positively on the value of such an initiative and affirmed the importance of pro-bono testing of communal water access points to ensure equitable access to this facility for all citizens.
The Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation, Professor Joanna Dames, said the facility would be the first of its kind to address the water challenges in the greater Makhanda community. According to Professor Dames, opening the water testing facility was a crucial step in ensuring that the citizens of Makhanda have access to safe water. She said the University intends to collaborate and be innovative to ensure the facility is used for its intended purpose.
Professor Dames reminded the attendees of the importance of the university's role in producing knowledge and disseminating it throughout the community. She said the institution would teach the public about water testing and analysis. "The facility will only be adequate if we all work together. This facility will allay people's anxieties about water and provide them with comfort," she said.
Makana Municipality's Manager of Water and Sanitation, Mr Gubevu Maduna, emphasised the facility's significance in developing high-quality water solutions and expressed enthusiasm for collaborating with the university. RUCE Director Diana Hornby said the facility would further bridge the gap between the institution and the community. She echoed Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela's inaugural address, in which he stated that “Rhodes University is not just in Makhanda, but for Makhanda”.
In closing, Prof Limson acknowledged the role that colleagues, including Dr Ronen Fogel, Lwazikazi Madikiza and Aphiwe Mfuku from RUBIC, Thandiswa Nqowana from RUCE, and Prof Roman Tandlich from Pharmacy have played in the research and community engagement that led to the establishment of the water testing facility.
Citizens of Makhanda who want to learn more about or utilise the facility can contact Lwazi Madikiza, who heads up RUBIC's Community Engagement research, at 046 603 7673 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.