SCARCE RESOURCE: The Kouga Dam near Patensie is one of the three main suppliers of water to Port Elizabeth. Picture: THE HERALD
SCARCE RESOURCE: The Kouga Dam near Patensie is one of the three main suppliers of water to Port Elizabeth. Picture: THE HERALD

"HOW do you model uncertainty?" asks Denis Hughes, director of the Institute for Water Research, based at Rhodes University.

He investigates risk and decision making with respect to water. "My research thrust is (quantifying) how much we know and how much we don’t know, and how do you make decisions under uncertain conditions."

With respect to climate change, "we’re not certain as scientists about our answers … (and) we’re asking decision makers to accept uncertainty and make decisions", he says.

"If you give one figure (such as the expected water resources in South Africa in 20 years, or temperature increases), a manager can make an unrealistic, confident decision, but if you give two far-apart figures, they cannot make a decision," he says.

One of the institute’s research thrusts, and something Prof Hughes is interested in, is hydrology, which "relates to modelling. We can’t measure everything, so we have to simulate it."

He cites modelling run-off from catchments and environmental flows. However, this is tied into fresh-water ecology, another research area. "It’s not just about water, but also water quality."

The other senior staff member in the institute, Tally Palmer, heads up the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality, which is part of the institute.

"I want the research we do to be used ... I’m focusing on putting science into practice ... Science is only a small part of it," says Prof Palmer.

In terms of the law, it is a basic right for people to have access to water, she says. It follows that it is also a right for this water to be in good condition.

"Degradation needs to have limits. We work on the research that would define these limits," Prof Palmer says.

"My focus is local government, because that is the level at which decisions are made regarding sewage treatment services, (which is) one of the main reasons for degradation."

The centre works with institutions and communities on an invitational basis. "We contact them and ask if there is a particularly difficult problem we could help with. ‘We’ve got funding, would you work with us in solving the problem?’" she says.

"We then cover the direct cost (in exchange for) in kind contribution from the institution, because of people’s time.

For a relatively small institute, with two senior staff and some junior staff on short-term contracts, it has a relatively high number of postgraduate students. "It is a research department, with postgraduates," he says. There are 10 doctoral and five masters students.

The institute is in the enviable position of being an autonomous entity while still affiliated with the university. The university pays Prof Hughes’ salary and that of his partner, Prof Palmer, but consulting and research grants fund the institute through bursaries, conferences and support staff wages.

"We need autonomy to decide on research directions," Prof Hughes says.

The institute has not always had so many postgraduate students, he says. In fact, most of the institute’s students are funded through a Carnegie Foundation grant, which is coming up for renewal this year.

However, a sizeable portion of the institute’s income comes from project funding from the Water Resource Commission, as well as consulting to the Department of Environmental Affairs.

"The commission’s mandate is to co-ordinate, fund and commission all water research in the country," says Wandile Nomquphu, research manager for water resource assessment and planning at the commission.

"It was established in 1971 … In the late 1950s, early 1960s, there was a huge drought in South Africa and the government realised that water is a limited resource and will be a limiting factor in the country’s economic development.

"It is funded through a water levy … about 3c per cubic litre of water you pay for. In total, when we’ve collected that, it’s about R120m per annum.

"The research is applied and has to find solutions the country is facing in terms of water."

Prof Hughes also emphasises the applied nature of the institute’s work. "It is about academic and practical research in real-world problem solving … (it is important to) keep our feet on the ground and direct research in a way that is relevant.

"We try to inculcate into our students the importance of practical application, which is especially important in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa," he says.

However, the postgraduate students are mostly not South African, he says, but they are all from African countries.

"I think there are two reasons: the weakness of science education at school level in South Africa. Second, anyone bright enough and keen enough has the ability to demand a higher salary immediately in the private sector."