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The Water Research Commission (WRC) plays an incredibly important role in ensuring that South Africans have access to water. Leadership’s Ralph Staniforth sat down with WRC CEO Jennifer Molwantwa to find out what goes into the day-to-day functioning of this vital entity.

The Water Research Commission (WRC) came into being in 1971 following the passing into law in Parliament of the Water Research Act (Act No 34 of 1971).

The Act and Commission were required following a serious water shortage period which threatened the availability of the precious commodity in South Africa.

As a matter of national importance, it was decided that new knowledge and the promotion of the country’s water research was required.

In 1971, water research and development (R&D) in South Africa was limited to a handful of institutions, while the level of funding was inadequate, to say the least.

The WRC was therefore mandated to enhance research co-ordination and put an end to the apparent neglect of some key research fields.

The fundamental requirement of the WRC is to ensure that the company remains sustainable, with capable and agile employees that can adapt to ongoing changes related to water and sanitation. They have to drive research, lead in specific areas and understand the complexities related to the new challenges. For this reason employee empowerment, capacitation and support is critical to the delivery of this complex mandate.

Fast forward to 53 years later and the WRC continues to drive their mandate despite a number of challenges.

Currently at the helm as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is Jennifer Molwantwa, who was appointed into her current role in April 2022.

“The Water Research Act was formed to advise on issues of water security for South Africa and in the main, we at the Water Research Commission focus on identifying research and then prioritising the implementation of our findings. Knowledge dissemination and communication around the research outputs and products are vital aspects, as well as to ensure that we contribute to water security, resilience and adaptation in response to the climate change impact,” Molwantwa explains.

The inner workings of the Water Research Commission

After a year in the job, Molwantwa was responsible for the development and implementation of the new strategy which was approved in 2023. This strategy is stakeholder centric to ensure that the research, development and innovation outputs are responsive to the national challenges and to ensure it addresses challenges faced by all its stakeholders across the water sector. It is critical that the WRC RDI agenda is drawn from identified challenges as this can guarantee an uptake of the products.

Once the strategy was approved last year, the main differentiator from what had come before was that of making the strategy more stakeholder-friendly across the board.

What this means is that the WRC put into practice going across the length and breadth of the country trying to identify research related to all issues of water and sanitation.

“We look at all stakeholders; we identify them and consult them. Once we understand what the challenges are, we are able to prioritise and incorporate them to form part of our research agenda. Once that is done, we are able to identify where we are lacking in each province of South Africa in terms of water management, water and sanitation service access to South Africans, including areas where availability of water is constrained.” Molwantwa explains.

She continues, “Key to engagement of stakeholders and bringing fit-for-purpose solutions is the collaboration of the WRC with oganisations that drive training and development such as the Water Institute of South Africa (WISA) and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), especially as water services are implemented at local government level.”

“Thankfully, our country has world class universities. Our research takes place in the universities and we are now trying to really encourage water management, water sector partners, and stakeholders to identify universities and seek partners in terms of decision making and advisory roles so that they don’t always rely on consultancies.

“We want the WRC to be the premier knowledge hub on all water and sanitation matters. Because of how long we’ve been in the business, we believe that when there are challenges and they contact the Water Research Commission, we are able to point them in the right direction, we are able to undertake some research to respond to the challenges that they have, but we will also to be able to link them with the relevant partners within the public and private sector.”

Water is life, but accessing it can be a challenge

As South Africa is a semi-arid country, it does not have the same water reserves as other countries and therefore the issues of water availability can build up over time.

As a result, this means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in the delivery of water and sanitation for the WRC, as different areas have different levels of rainfall and reserves, meaning their approach needs to be tailored. What is critical is ensuring that there is equity and similar experiences for all South Africans as an imperative of the constitution.

“Each area has to have its own solution that will ensure access to water, as well as access to sanitation. For example, the Northern Cape is very arid, so we know that groundwater is the main source of water. We support the municipalities in that region to say that you need to have groundwater resources and capabilities within local government so that when you want to develop groundwater for access to water and sanitation, you have got the right people to be able to determine what the process is and how to implement it,” Molwantwa says.

Another key challenge is water quality.

With the ever-rising population in South Africa and the growth of settlements—both formal and the informal—there is finer research that needs to be shared to ensure water quality that is fit for human consumption—but it requires the buy-in from all stakeholders, thus the source of the water should not matter, only the quality provided must meet the national standard. Furthermore, where there’s limited resources, water should not be used only once —effluent and used water should be viewed as a resource that can be reused. It is no longer possible to flush expensive portable water to convey waste in all areas.

“When we are talking about drinking water quality, we have contributed to key role players in terms of how South African water quality should be, but beyond that we are also saying how do the municipalities at district and local levels manage to monitor and evaluate to ensure that people are getting proper water quality? We also embark on issues around environmental surveillance to help in this regard,” Molwantwa avers.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WRC were able to develop a tool that specifically looks at wastewater treatment samples as part of environmental surveillance where the COVID-19 genes were detected and this was able to predict the extent to which people were infected and the rate. This allowed them to detect where increases were occuring and predict the levels in terms of COVID-19 infection as it was happening.

“This all stems around skills development, empowerment, and capacitation of water and sanitation officials. We are finding new methodologies, digital tools, systems, and technologies from abroad and others we develop locally to ensure that we are able to have a means to manage our water better, using the correct systems and models,” Molwantwa continues.

“For example, we review and update our models taking into consideration the challenges of climate change and how we can plan at a national level, at a provincial level, and in local spheres to ensure that when there is a development of any kind, we focus on conserving the water found in those areas. This is the same in the sanitation space, domestic space, agriculture, mining, and other water-related sectors. We are doing all of that research so that we can respond to the challenges we face.”

Striving to achieve big things

The WRC has made very big strides in ensuring the constitutional right of people to have access to a flushing toilet.

This is made possible by focusing on areas where there isn’t a lot of available water and utilising the minimal water access to ensure dignity is restored.

Currently, South Africa is still under threat of a lack of sufficient water, while water quality and availability issues are becoming more acute. However, the country is much better prepared to deal with this problem owing to the WRC’s meaningful contribution to the development of the capacity of the water sector, the broadening of the country’s water-centred R&D base, and the WRC’s continued commitment to direct and fund research on critical issues.

“In the rural areas and informal settlements, we have developed, alongside our commercial partners, toilets that recycle water and separate waste. We are also able to look at the solid waste and its beneficiation in terms of forming methane gas. Sometimes it can be used when disinfected in the agricultural space as fertiliser or what you call ‘soil conditioners’,” she explains.

The WRC has also identified a way in which to boost the South African economy, but the buy-in from the government is vital in this regard.

“We also want to promote flushing, decentralised non-sewered sanitation technologies because we have found that there is real potential for commercial enterprise that can be developed. You would have to have manufacturing, training of installers, people that monitor, similar to what you would find with DSTV.

“ The benefit could be twofold with jobs on offer and the fast tracking of access to sanitation, but we believe that requires a government stimulus to be able to identify this as one of those economic boosters,” Molwantwa adds.

Education is another key factor in what the WRC is trying to achieve.

Molwantwa says that the WRC is working closely with the agricultural space to ensure that the importance of water is not lost in the search for profits.

“We are working together with some of the commercial agricultural farming entities, especially the ones that are involved in export, and with the research that we have done we assist them to understand the water footprint that they have used to produce those exports and products. Once you have those tools and you have localised it, there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs to be able to access this and to run this as a business in order for them to comply with the export requirements,” she explains.

A big question that many people ask has to do with the water we find along our coastlines and why we can’t use that to alleviate some of the pressure on the general water system in South Africa.

Molwantwa is a big believer in desalination plants and making use of the salt water we have access to, which she explains: ”Desalination is something we need to look at more. From coast to coast more water can be made available. The first desalination plant was built in Namibia, and as we well know, Namibia is largely a desert area so their limitations to water is no secret. Currently, the City of Cape Town is actually focusing on building the biggest treatment plant in the world as part of their 50-year water plan as a province to make sure that there is sustainable water availability.”

Building a strong organisation for the future

While the focus for the WRC is ensuring water is available for South Africans, for Molwantwa, there is a whole lot more that goes on behind the scenes that needs to be addressed in order to ensure the overarching goal of water research is able to continue.

An important organisational goal for Molwantwa is financial sustainability in the long term.

The WRC is funded by the Water Research Act, which means that for every litre of water you use and pay for, a portion is allocated to the WRC. However, the reality here is that if the WRC is unable to do their job properly, less water will be provided to the masses, which means less funding will reach the WRC for their mandated operational duties.

This is why Molwantwa believes that a key factor is having staff on board who are able to offer more than just what their role requires; as a holistic approach to water research is a saving grace for water sustainability.

“It is imperative for us to build a really cohesive organisation that has got officials that are agile and understand what is required, because when you come into the job as a research manager, for example, you are managing water quality or ground water and we have seen that with the natural evolution of style and the challenges that we have, you can’t just stick to your one discipline. We want to ensure that our officials are really multi-disciplinary role players that not only manage research, but also provide advisory services to the government; forming part of dissemination of this knowledge and making an impact on the ground,” she explains.

In order for this to happen, partnerships are key. That is why the WRC have formed some strong relationships with universities in South Africa as a way to upskill current and potential employees to be ready to take on the challenging world of water research and all that comes with it. While it is a challenging task, the future is starting to look bright when it comes to the next generation of water researchers.

“We work with universities, particularly the emerging and the historically disadvantaged, to ensure that we enhance their research capability. More than that, it is also to make sure that they are able to effectively contribute to provide solutions within the localities where they are situated,” she continues.

“We are also largely focused on making sure that there are more researchers being supported to a PhD graduate level. We fund them in this new model and strategy to do their post graduate studies, post doctorate studies, so that we create more researchers, because, as we know, a lot of our researchers are really experienced and they have all of this knowledge, so we want to ensure that we are building capacity for the future.

“We support a lot of students through the research projects we are funding within the universities, but we are also trying to pick and create a bursary fund that will get new entrants into some of the systems within the various water sectors. It is something that is happening very slowly, so we would like to get students and put them together with the hydrologists to create a training platform. We have set ourselves a target of creating 100 hydrologists that will be more on the digitised space. So those are some of the key areas that we are trying to build, but also making sure that our institution is sustainable into the future.”

The South African water situation and new developments

It goes without saying that water is a finite commodity. If we continue to waste it, we will suffer in the long term. That’s why institutions such as the WRC are so vital, not just in South Africa, but on a global scale. In terms of ensuring that we all play our part in South Africa, the WRC continues to work hard in terms of educating the masses and putting in place strategies to help all water users preserve what we may not have in the future… if we continue to be wasteful.

However, the WRC can only do so much, as citizens who refuse to pay for their water are also a major part of the growing problem.

“I believe the world is in a dire situation when it comes to water, therefore the management of that water source—which is finite—is what we need to protect. Making people buy into this vision of using water sparingly and making sure that we are demanding good quality water for ourselves is difficult, but we are trying our best to educate as many people as possible,” Molwantwa insists.

“People also need to understand that there are financial implications and if nobody pays for water, then eventually our taps will run dry. The prioritisation of our needs and wants as South Africans has to change. For example, somebody will have DSTV at home and they are paying for this just because they want it, but when it comes to water, when it comes to electricity, people just say the government must provide. The notion that the government must provide must also be demystified. The direness of the situation depends on how we effectively respond to the challenges and ensure that we make a difference. We must all do it now before the situation becomes dire.”

An old-school mindset when it comes to water usage is also not helping matters.

Where water was once readily available, it no longer is, so the WRC has its work cut out for it when it comes to coping with this mindset.

For Molwantwa and her teams, new developments in how they operate are key to keeping up with the latest trends and usage reports.

“We have tweaked how we do our research. We involve more of the social and economic researchers because we have found that our behaviours are linked to an abundance of water being available. It is taking a long time for us to switch our behaviour to conserving water, paying for water, valuing water, and not impacting water negatively,” she explains.

“So those are the key areas that we have to focus on and that requires a compact between the government, its people, and the water entities involved. We also have to be much more concerned about climate change in terms of the status of town planning and start building in the climate change era. That requires a behaviour and policy change.”

In conclusion

For South Africa to continue to be able to supply water, Molwantwa believes we all need to play our part in ensuring we protect and preserve not just the water itself, but the infrastructure that plays a huge part in not only delivering the water, but delivering clean water that is fit for human consumption.

“We have to be much more responsible as a nation. Infrastructure in South Africa is a big deal. When people steal cables, block storm water drains, damage pipes, it all plays a negative role in our ability to provide the best possible service. People want the Minister to solve challenges but vandalism is a big reason for the water challenges and that creates delays. We are also looking at options of water provision linked to alternative energy sources such as solar, thus a compact is critical between society and government in order for us to reach those who still need services, rather than us chasing our own tails to fix what has been vandalised,” Molwantwa concludes.

We hope that South Africans heed your warning and start to take this matter much more seriously than they currently are.

By Editor