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Research: KSA 1

(KSA 1-2) Water Resources and Ecosystems

The new Key Strategic Area: Water Resources and Ecosystems is a combination of the former Water Resource Management and Water-Linked Ecosystems KSAs. New thrusts and programmes have been developed unifying the various components of the previous portfolios and redirecting them to enable the WRC to respond to current challenges and trends related to water resources and ecosystems. In addition, attention is given to national, global and water sector related plans, roadmaps and goals. The portfolio will be enriched with projects and activities that will stretch the KSA further across the research, development and innovation value chain. Innovation is a key growth driver in the form of new and improved products, processes and services, underpinned by a strong science and technology foundation.

Water resources include watercourses, surface water, estuaries and aquifers and, together with the related ecosystems, are best managed based on a hydro(geo) logical boundary, while taking into account administrative boundaries. Integrated water resource and ecosystem management calls for an improved understanding and quantitative description of the interactions between the different components of the hydrological cycle (atmosphere, surface and subsurface) and linked ecosystems. Water Resources and Ecosystems will focus on hydrological and ecosystem processes, management, and protection, through social, institutional, economic and technological interventions at the appropriate scales. Benefit derivation from our water resources and ecosystems will enable meeting a variety of outcomes, such as the WRC’s Knowledge Tree and Government Outcomes, for the benefit of society, the economy and the environment.

The discipline-specific approach to solving water challenges is important but on its own cannot address current environmental problems and complexities. A coordinated approach that links various disciplines is important and achievable through the formation of strategic partnerships, positioning and coordination. Product and process innovation are encouraged within the new KSA. Innovative and empowered institutional arrangements and responses will ensure the implementation of resilient coping, adaptation and mitigation measures. The use and development of water resource technologies will be encouraged to ensure cost-effective and reliable data and information collection, processing, storing and modelling of these systems. Technologies that will enable in-situ water quality remediation and treatment will also form part of the research portfolio.

The strategic objectives have embedded in them all of the elements of the WRC’s Knowledge Tree and at the same time aim to enhance the development focus to ensure higher resource security and improve livelihoods in and around water and related systems. High impact, outcomes-based projects will form the basis of the portfolio while funding R&D projects that are complementary to existing products and solutions for maximum impact. The portfolio of projects will continue to build capacity at all levels and ensure that this capacity is maintained in the sector and beyond. In order to improve water security, a competent portfolio that will diversify South Africa’s water supply mix and develop processes and technologies that will enhance and embed resilience in water resource and ecosystem use and protection will be built.

Overview and description of thrusts and programmes

THRUST 1: Governance and Institutional Arrangements

Scope: Governance that is based on well-defined principles, tools and effective institutions are critical for the sustainable development and management of natural resources. Creating adequate and effective governance provisions form the basis for good management and custodianship of natural resources and in particular water. Vertical and horizontal linkages of institutions, policies, regulations and laws will ensure improved management, service delivery and meeting broader economic, environmental and societal goals. Representative community and stakeholder participation, amongst other principles of integrated water resources management, across sectors needs to be strengthened. Typical areas related to water management reforms and the related governance aspects will be covered such as cooperative governance at all levels, water sector legal frameworks and broader institutional arrangements, financing and pricing, civil society participation and the equitable provision of access and services. The sustainability of water systems ultimately depend on how we operate and manage these schemes or interventions.

Programme 1: Cooperative governance for water resources management

Institutional mandates are often distinct yet related to ensure a functional system geared towards improved, efficient and well-coordinated service delivery. Creating platforms for collaborations and knowledge sharing amongst government and other related institutions responsible for water, land, environment, health, energy, mining and agriculture will increase impact in addressing water and other related challenges facing the country. The programme will also include the role and functions of local authorities and communities in water resources management. Transboundary water research that will enable neighbouring countries, institutions across administrative boundaries or catchments to manage their shared natural capital in an integrated manner will be funded under this programme.

Programme 2: Policy, science and implementation

Translating policies, research, development & innovation into implementation has its difficulties due to inadequate governance and institutional arrangements. This programme will seek to find innovative ways to shorten and strengthen the policy-science-implementation pathway. Translating intentions into desired changes will be the focus of this programme through topics that cover water resources implementation science and policy implementation sciences. The programme will also cater for policy reviews and alignment across institutions.

Programme 3: Water pricing and financing

The actual value of natural resources, including pricing, is often under-estimated or not well established. Understanding the economics of water resources and ecosystems (see Thrust 3, Programme 4) and the incorporation of this into pricing strategies and policies will be the focus of this programme. Diversifying the water supply mix relies not only on the availability and assurance of supply of the resources or technologies but also on the long and short term financing of capital and operational financing. This programme will be used to explore proper financing models and cost-benefit-analyses.

Programme 4: Gender and equity

Gender and equity are generally associated with unequal power and access to choices and resources due to historical, religious, economic and cultural realities. This programme will seek to address the empowerment and involvement of women and youth in influencing how we manage our water resources as well as how the benefits derived from it is distributed. The programme will also research and generate new knowledge based on ideas and innovations from indigenous/local knowledge systems. The role of social entrepreneurship in addressing inequality, poverty and unemployment challenges will also be key in this programme

Programme 5: Operation & maintenance

Operation and maintenance of water resource management systems is a major challenge in South Africa and beyond. Lack of skills, resources and other governance provisions have a direct impact on water delivery and water resource management. Investments in building local skills and know-how, through citizen science, play a crucial role in local water resources management. Developing robust and innovative interventions will be the focus of this thrust.


THRUST 2: Hydrological and Ecosystem Processes

Scope: This thrust focuses on developing a scientific understanding of the hydrological processes to promote better understanding of the variability of the quantity and quality of water available for use and development in South Africa. This understanding will assist those managing the water resource to maximise socio-economic benefits in a sustainable manner. The aim is to generate knowledge that informs decision-making. All water resource types will be covered. This thrust includes research addressing the biophysical processes, form and function of ecosystems. This understanding will assist those managing the resource (water services, aquatic plants and aquaculture, biodiversity, etc.) to maximise socio-economic benefits in a sustainable manner.

Programme 1: Eco and socio-hydrology

The understanding of the dynamics of the interactions between water and vegetation and the dynamics of the interactions between water and people is essential ‘in the context of a changing, human-dominated world’ - this understanding underpins sustainable water management. The focus of this programme is largely on observing, understanding and predicting future trajectories of the coupled biotic-water systems and the special case of human-water systems.

Programme 2: Data and hydroinformatics

Accurate and timely data and information on water quantity and quality which are reliable, secured and accessible are fundamental in any decision making. The need to understand the past and current trends and to project the future trends in water resources and ecosystems are of fundamental importance for sustainable water management. This programme will focus on funding research in scientific data management, data analysis, data visualization, modelling new algorithms and tools as well as big data systems. Special attention on deploying advanced sensor networks and data management tools to improve environmental monitoring and forecasting, collaboration and information sharing among researchers, better management of the complex scientific datasets, dissemination and sharing of data and information, and archiving and preservation of data.

Programme 3: Hydrology

Sustainable water resources management requires an in-depth understanding of the hydrological processes at various spatio-temporal scales. This understanding requires the assessment of hydrological variability, the quantification of the interactions between land use/landcover on the hydrological responses, and the characterisation of the rainfall-runoff-recharge processes. Areas of research will centre on the use of field measurements and modelling approaches including the use of isotopes, geophysical methods, satellite and remote sensing technology to analyse catchment processes, surface water and groundwater systems, and to predict and forecast the yield and hydrological responses to various natural and anthropogenic drivers.

Programme 4: Water security

As a water-limited country, it is essential for South Africa to investigate and understand its current and future water security. To frame the water security question better, there is a ‘need for more information on variables that control and impact water security, and the need for an integrated, multi-disciplinary, multi-scale, multi-agency approach to research’. Areas of research in this programme will entail: (1) developing new knowledge on understanding of natural water security through new data; (2) developing models to support water risk analysis and water (in)security frameworks; (3) developing scientific and technology tools to manage water security e.g. water use/reuse efficiency tools, etc.; (4) the role of the ecological infrastructure in ensuring water security; (5) alternative water sources such as fog water, rainwater harvesting, etc.; (6) continued investigation of the impact of alien and invasive plants on water security; and (7) the impact of the growing population and the effects of climate extremes (droughts and floods) on water resources. The magnitude and variabilities in precipitation, evaporation and evapotranspiration should be characterised to provide insight into flows, extremes, the impacts on quantity and quality by anthropogenic land use change and societal controls on water use.


THRUST 3: Water Resource & Ecosystem Protection and Utilization

Scope: This thrust is focused on research, development and innovation which specifically address management tools necessary for natural systems decision-making and to guide sustainable utilisation of these systems for the provision of the benefits that people depend on while understanding the ecosystem services rendered by the environment. Central to this is the need to manage the requirements of society from natural ecosystems and influencing policy and decision-making. The thrust will support efforts to develop the capacity required to drive implementation.

Programme 1: Resource directed measures

Research in this programme will be conducted to develop and refine methods for determining and operationalising the natural water resources classification system, the ecological/human Reserve and resource quality objectives as required by the NWA. The programme will address the more strategic issues such as the development of new and improved methods as well as issues such as innovative ways to implement the Reserve. The methods will take the integrative approach, whereby socio-economic aspects are considered at the same time. The new knowledge will enrich the MSc curriculum on environmental flow requirements offered by various universities

Programme:2: Rehabilitation and conservation

This programme addresses the rehabilitation, restoration and remediation (including both the abiotic and the biotic components) which has been degraded through anthropogenic activities with the view of restoring the form and function of the impacted systems. Improving water security and reducing threats and impacts to natural resources will be a key outcome.

Programme:3 Water system utilisation and augmentation

The sustainable use and benefit derivation of our water resources will be the focus of this programme. Droughts and increased demands have triggered the search for alternative water supply options. There is a need to diversify our water supply mix and manage them in an integrated manner. This programme will include new water resources, augmentation and conjunctive use models.


Environmental economics and resource accounting

A vast amount of value is locked up in natural resources and remains relatively untapped despite improved and available technologies. Unemployment, inequality and poverty can be arrested and improved through unlocking the blue and green economies. The research in this programme will support economic development that does not violate socio-ecological processes. Outputs from research should contribute to improving the lives of people while also improving the conditions of water resources and the environment at large. Globally there is a general lack of data and information on environmental accounting research. The research will also analyse the costs of restoring ecosystem and its functionality after or when it has totally collapsed beyond the threshold point. Similarly the costs of not restoring or delayed restoration versus proactive prevention of degradation will be funded under this programme. Different evaluation and accounting methods and tools will be developed and adapted to local conditions.


THRUST 4: Environmental Change and Adaptation

Scope: The Thrust will address research to improve our understanding of the connectivity between land, water, atmosphere and people and the contribution to global change. The impact of any change in the environment has an impact on each ecological factor and should be assessed to be able to quantify the risks, develop appropriate strategies and to mitigate against disasters. The thrust will also focus on movement of people (migration) and the responses of aquatic ecosystems to these population dynamics.

Programme 1: Urbanization

The high rate of urbanisation is a reality and pressures on urban ecosystems are increasing. The impact of sociological dynamics on ecosystems and on the environment occurs in this programme. As human population increase, move and change in different areas, sociological studies in relation to the environment are needed to support planning and development of rural and urban areas. Research in this programme will support the Water Sensitive Design Lighthouse and greening of the urban environment.

Programme 2:

Climate change and variability

The programme will deal with aspects related to climate change and variability and its relation to water resources and ecosystems. The research will develop knowledge about mitigation and adaptation measures. The impact of climate change on ecosystem processes, functions, and structure will be given attention in this programme. The aspects such as readiness or lack thereof by rural and urban communities and institutions to adapt to climate change, as well as ecosystem resilience will be contained in this programme. In this programme, the link between climate and resource quality as well as the development of models to further understand, predict and have early warning detection tools are supported.

Programme3: Land use planning and changes

Catchment management can only be effective if land use management is linked to water resource management. The programme focuses on enhancing understanding of the effect of human interventions (land uses and decision-making) on the environmental health of various water resources and/or ecosystems.

The impact of various development and land-use practices on the water resource quality will be investigated. There should also be opportunity to develop / review and update models that will be able to predict such impacts and propose solutions that are sustainable.

Programme 4: Environmental risk and disaster management


Risk assessment methodologies and procedures will be developed and improved. The research will develop knowledge needed for environmental risk mitigation and adaptation. Existing tools and procedures will be assessed with the intention of refining / or developing them. Research aimed at determining ecological thresholds will be supported in this programme.


THRUST 5: Resource Quality and Management

Scope: The Resource Quality and Management Thrust will focus on research on the water resources and their quality in terms of chemical, biological and ecological health as well as their flow and volumetric characteristics. The health / quality of these resources have an effect on the fitness for use and similarly the users have an impact on the resources. There is a need for research and development as well as tools for monitoring, modelling, prediction and early warning systems to understand the interplay between the environment, users and pollution sources. The quality of the resource has a direct impact on human health. Projects in this thrust will build towards the Water Quality and Health Lighthouse.

Programme 1:

Water pollution, depletion and human health

Within this programme research will be conducted to develop integrated and innovative methods and procedures which can be employed to protect the environment and mitigate activities that can degrade the quality and quantity of water systems. Monitoring tools, analytical methods, prediction and early warning tools will be developed to improve our understanding of the fate and behaviour of pollutants in the environment and potential impacts on human health.

Programme 2:

Emerging contaminants

Emerging contaminants research will be addressed in this programme to enrich our understanding of the presence and prediction of future risks associated with emerging and persistent contaminants in the environment and in particular source water. The tools for monitoring and evaluation of these contaminants and their mixtures and by-products will also be developed. The programme will also look at the collection and reporting of data in order to ensure that models are developed and validated in this area.

Programme 3:

Source water protection

Source water protection refers to protecting water bodies used for drinking from contamination and overuse. Specific driving forces, or a combination thereof, which have an impact on water resources will be researched. Integrated protection strategies and approaches will be researched and tested. The development of source water planning, control and response strategies, to minimise adverse impacts on source waters by reducing pollution risks and securing water availability, is a key component of this programme. The source water protection approach will look at, among others, land use (see Thrust 4, Programme 3), vulnerability assessments and catchment plans and strategies (for both surface and groundwater). Special attention will be given to the vulnerability of these systems and future scenarios that may require their exploitation in response to land use during development as well as in the case of climate change.


THRUST 6: Water Resources Innovation and Technologies

Scope: Process innovation and new technologies are crucial in ensuring water and environmental security. Real-time data and information is becoming important for decision-making and systems management. A decline in land-based data collection is countered by the use of remotely sensed data and information. A combination of land-based and remotely sensed observations can be integrated into scenario models and early warning systems. The use of automated communication systems improves data distribution, reduces costs and allows for near real-time uploading of data. In-situ treatment of water resources can be effectively used to improve water quality and reduce water treatment costs. This thrust aims to establish, stimulate and pilot innovations and appropriate novel technologies that could be taken up by the sector and beyond.

Programme 1:


Desktop and mobile applications that can improve awareness and management and in particular operation and maintenance of our water resource and ecosystems will be funded under this programme.

Programme 2:

Remote sensing and telemetry

Innovative collection and processing of remotely sensed data and information will be supported in this thrust. Incorporation of remotely sensed information with land-based data and information and creating meaningful decision-making products will be supported. The development of robust environmental and water telemetric systems is encouraged.

Programme: 3

Environmental sensors & detectors

The development of sensor and detection technology for a wide range of environmental applications will be the focus of this programme.

Programme 4:

Models and early warning systems

This programme will focus on the development of new analytical and numerical models. The development of robust and innovative early warning systems to detect environmental change will be a key focus of this thrust.

Programme 5:

Treatment technologies

This program will focus on the development of in-situ treatment technologies that will improve the quality of the resource without compromising ecological integrity. Treatment technologies that reduce chemical, microbiological and pathogen contamination as well as issues such as rehabilitation of eutrophication zones will be considered.

Programme 6:

Blue-Green technologies and infrastructure

The development of new green infrastructure, technologies and processes and their incorporation in water and ecosystem management will be the focus of the thrust.


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