Lynn Hurry with Alana Steinbauer and Michael Gasser

Alana Steinbauer and Michael Gasser are two MSc Students from Europe who spent 3 months working in the Mathuba Schools & Citizen River Health Initiative of the UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth & Environmental Sciences.  Coming from Germany and Switzerland respectively they have applied their knowledge of first-world research techniques to  develop a computer-driven model that local environmental managers can use to better understand the management of rivers and their catchments.

In September of this year when we arrived at the university to join Dr Mark Dent’s Mathuba team the land was desperate for water and from our first conversations it was not hard to see the differences between South Africa and Central Europe in terms of the abundance of water, how it is used and how it is treated.

Our journey to Pietermaritzburg started long before our actual arrival in Pietermaritzburg, when in February the European partner of our internship, the ASA-Program (a program sponsored by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development) had invited us to join 70 young professional from all over Europe for two intensive weeks of preparation for upcoming work in Africa. Although sponsored the ASA-Program maintains its project independence and in this it gives strong support to projects which act in a socially responsible and sustainable way. And for this reason we were glad to know that the ASA was supporting the Mathuba Initiative for which we had applied to work.

On our arrival at UKZN on the 2nd September we were warmly welcomed by Dr Dent and those working in the Mathuba Initiative. Our task during the three months was to develop a hydrological computer model which would allow for the cumulative effects of change agents (for example heavy rainfalls, floods, droughts, removal of vegetation, soil erosion) on the catchment as a whole. This model will help to determine how rivers might behave under different circumstance over time, and how these changes might impact on management practices such as the building of dams. Of particular importance in the development of the model was the inclusion of climate change as one of the variables since it will affect rainfall and the future of both water supply and water quality.

As we developed the model it was of value to us to draw on the local knowledge of the Mpophomeni community, especially the Mpophomeni Eco-Champs. Working with the Mathuba Initiative, the latter group of concerned citizens have spent time mapping sources of water contamination, particularly from spilling manholes, in and around Mpophomeni. Of significance in terms of water supplies to the people of the uMngeni river basin our hydrological model can use this data directly to model future water quality in the Mthinzima catchment – a worrying source of deteriorating water quality in Midmar Dam.

Sharing ideas around scientific models with those in the Mathuba program gave us opportunities to bring a number of NGO’s and GO’s around the table to discuss what is possible and what can be done to resolve issues of concern around local water quality. And as these discussions started to bear fruit our UKZN supervisor Dr Mark Dent summed things up well when he said that “one piece of a jig-saw puzzle on its own just doesn’t make sense. It’s only when you bring all pieces together that you get a beautiful picture….. When you’re working together you can achieve far higher goals.”

Since our arrival in kwaZulu-Natal the rain has arrived and the province is turning green again. And as we write most of our time in South Africa is over and we will soon be going home. A lot has happened since our arrival and, as we prepare to leave this beautiful and impressive country, it is good to know that there are many energetic and passionate people working to protect its rivers and their catchments It has been a privilege to be part of this community.
Dr Lynn Hurry lynn@ecology, 083 631 2658