By Fiona Wakelin and Koketso Mamabolo

Protecting Our Most Vital Resource

It’s an undeniable fact that bears repeating: “Water is life.” This seems to be a simple point, but once one begins to delve deeper into the work of the Water Research Commission, it’s clear that protecting such a scarce resource is everybody’s responsibility. Under the leadership of CEO, Dr Jennifer Molwantwa, and Chairperson, Dr Rethabile Melamu, the Water Research Commission is playing its part to address the country’s challenges through innovation in the water and sanitation sector. Here the CEO and Chairperson share with Public Sector Leaders an important message, mapping out the Commission’s work, approach and aspirations.

Starting At The Source

“I keep telling my colleagues about my grandmother, who I believe is my greatest inspiration,” says Dr Molwantwa, describing how she learnt from an early age the importance of using water wisely. “She lived in the rural areas of the North West and I visited during the school holidays. There was no waste management, there was no water available except for one community borehole. So I learned water science at a very early age. She explains how her grandmother would take her through the consequences of allowing water to drip from the buckets they used to fetch water. Their garden was irrigated using recycled water and they dug an array of pits in the yard to separate refuse into different piles. Bottles and cans in one, vegetable peels in the next, paper, ash and manure in others.

Dr Molwantwa recalls how they always waited a day before drinking water they had just brought home. Her grandmother would put a tiny amount of bleach and place the water in the sun. Drinking water was separated and placed behind a door, and Dr Molwantwa realised later that it was to prevent the water getting polluted, shielding it from any debris flowing in. These were lessons in scarcity, and the ability for us all to play our part in protecting our most precious resource. “So you can see how water science was done by a woman that didn’t have much, and no education. Look at rural women and how they are really making the most out of the little available water,” says Dr Molwantwa. “We recently started a programme in Giyani, where we are supporting about 500 subsistence farmers, mainly women, teaching them on how to utilise their business knowledge and enhance, but also making sure that they provide for their children.” Dr Molwantwa opens a window into how the Water Research Commission has evolved over the years, and speaks passionately about the role it has to play in the country and beyond. The Water Research Commission (WRC) was born out of a crisis, when droughts had struck South Africa and, as a result, the WRC was established in 1971 through the Water Research Act.



Dr Molwantwa explains to Public Sector Leaders that at the time it was recognised that the country required a focus on research in “water provision, water availability and water resource management,” in order to find solutions. “And over the last 50 years we have worked on that mandate, where we are actually coordinating, collaborating and ensuring that research development and innovation takes place within the water sector. And we really focus on identifying the research needs,” says Dr Molwantwa. “Going forward, we have to be the entity for government to call on when faced with water security, climate change, monitoring, risk etc… We have a critical role in supporting the Department of Water and Sanitation, and the different spheres of government. Such a specialised entity must be used optimally, to provide evidence-based solutions, with a quick turnaround. The people, and government, should see the value in our methods, solutions and advise.”

Dr Rethabile Melamu highlights the role the private sector could play: “The WRC has the potential to support the innovation ecosystem to commercialise water and sanitation, create some entrepreneurial ventures and create much needed jobs.” Dr Molwantwa identifies the different stakeholders who rely on the WRC’s work, including the Department of Water and Sanitation, the environmental sector, mining and agriculture, with a more recent focus on local government. “Once we’ve identified the needs, we then craft our research agenda in-line with being able to respond, which is ensuring that we have water security in South Africa,” adds Dr Molwantwa. The WRC is leveraging technological innovation in the sector for development and planning around water resources, identifying systems to monitor and the quality of the available water. “We’re also doing a lot of advisory work. And that involves supporting local governments, or municipalities, in identifying some of the technology they want for water treatment works or waste water treatment works,” explains Dr Molwantwa. 

She describes the WRC as a “catalyst” in their work with municipalities, ensuring that the right technology is procured. The importance of the work is highlighted by the work they’ve been doing for the Department of Water and Sanitation around the recent cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, just outside of Johannesburg, with trust in their position as an independent body with sound methodologies and technical expertise.“We can be trusted to provide the truth without fear or favour, and we have also identified new and emerging health risks and we’re working with the different departments.” Since it began its work more than half a century ago, the WRC has evolved from the basic research it was conducting in the early days, with a shift towards what Dr Molwantwa describes as stakeholder-oriented research which is geared towards solving particular issues. “We realised that what you call ‘blue side’, or innovative research – new research that postgraduates do in the universities – does contribute to solutions. But we’ve also said we need to do more with applied research; research outcomes that can really be implemented, make a difference, solve problems and we need to make sure that we’re also developing innovation and technologies that we can showcase to the local municipalities.” 

Flowing In A New Direction

In her two decades of experience in water management, Dr Molwantwa has seen how the government, through the Department, has changed its role in managing water resources and planning development. “We’ve seen that there’s a lot of work that’s been done in terms of treatment, regulations, guidelines and a lot of that work has come out of the Water Research Commission,” she says. This does not mean that the country isn’t still facing a range of challenges which the WRC is working tirelessly to address. Water quality has been in decline over the years, with pollution and issues with solid waste management compounding the ageing infrastructure and a lack of highly skilled personnel in municipalities. Technological developments have improved the ability to use monitoring equipment to assess the pollution.

Dr Molwantwa details how the pesticides and fertilisers used in the agriculture sector, and chemicals being used in the cosmetics industry, can have long-term effects on genes and cause hormonal imbalances. “We’re finding now that there are new and emerging contaminants of concern, and we really have to start dealing with finding an implementation plan for how we’re going to phase these out. How do we phase in new and biodegradable and environmentally friendly chemicals and alternatives to make sure that the environment and water resources are safe?”

She explains that the country uses a unique water provision model, flowing from the regulator to the water provision authorities such as local government, with the WRC pushing for self-regulation. “Having conducted a study that identified flaws in the current model of water service delivery, we propose that an entity with technical and highly skilled personnel is required to deliver water services to our people. there should be procurement process that can yield quick turnaround times. Different options of delivering water in sanitation must be considered taking into consideration the climatic conditions, infrastructure, source water etc…what needs to be looked at is how do we review and redefine this model to ensure that there is effective water provision,” she says, also touching on the importance of reaching far flung areas, which are in danger of being neglected. “What about those that are in the areas where there’s no water?”

Dr Molwantwa also highlights the work the WRC is doing around extreme weather events such as flooding, along with extended periods of drought: “We have modelled for flood lines. How we modelled for where development can take place has to change,” she says. “So now we’re working on new modules around flood and drought identification and warning systems so that we can be prepared. What’s important is that we need to recognise that climate change is here, and we need to change our behaviour around water management, water development and water use, so that we are sustainable,” emphasises Dr Molwantwa. Sustainability, which organisations are grappling with through the standards being set in ESG frameworks, is something organisations are embracing, albeit with more still needing to be done, as Chairperson, Dr Melamu, explains: “Most organisations have paid limited attention to the ‘environment’ aspects of ESG such as accounting for the carbon footprint of the organisation.” Dr Molwantwa echoes this point, reiterating the need to develop in a sustainable manner and create awareness amongst communities and public officials. 

“We can’t just keep giving and developing everywhere and thinking there’s going to be water,” says Dr Molwantwa. “One of the challenges around that is that now we are facing not only climate change but also the lack of energy availability.” She calls for a more considered approach to pumping water, using gravity and solar energy to move water from one place to another. And while the 2030 deadline for the National Development Plan is fast approaching, Dr Molwantwa is encouraged by the work already being done by the Department of Water and Sanitation to establish water management agencies at the local level, which allow for communities to get involved in decision-making and for greater awareness of the behaviour required for sustainable water availability. “We really have to work hard. It takes everyone. I always say water is not just the government’s business.”


The Best Kept Secret

“Technology will obviously bring us a big game changer in terms of sustainability and water security,” says Dr Molwantwa. She provides an example of a water recycling project which the WRC has been working on for the past decade. The non-reticulated toilets, which she says would be perfect for rural schools where there are no recycling facilities, allow for solids to be separated from the water which can then be used for irrigation purposes. Solids can, after treatment, be used as environmentally friendly fertilisers. The private sector is also coming to the party. “There have been exciting businesses whose growth I have witnessed,” says Dr Melamu. “Innovations in the water space include macadamia nut shells as part of filtration systems for the purification of water, especially in rural areas. I have also witnessed some innovative technologies for treatment of acid mine water, a prevalent challenge in provinces such as Gauteng.”


“You know, water is life,” says Dr Molwantwa, speaking of how the rapid growth of the population puts a strain on water resources, as well the movement of people from rural to the urban areas, which is causing imbalances in the water supply. In South Africa, the WRC works closely with the private sector to look at prototypes and models for ways to develop them for local use and the commission also has close ties with the international water research community, being founding members of the Global Water Research Coalition. “In this international platform we discuss ways in which to improve our technologies, ways to improve planning, and how to manage resources,” explains Dr Molwantwa. “The research team from South Africa sometimes gets involved in a project where they each contribute case studies from different countries. We get to learn, faster, what others have done or what others have done in the long term, and get to see what the challenges are and see where the opportunities for technological development are. Our researchers at the WRC, highly skilled in technical areas, get to also participate in international conferences, workshops and training, to gain knowledge, develop better skills, but to also develop their careers.”

The WRC are also members of the African Water and Sanitation Association, as well as the International Water Association. And as Dr Molwantwa notes, this international cooperation shows the role the WRC is playing to solve global challenges, not just those limited to our own borders. Together with the University of KwaZulu-Natal and their partners, including universities from other parts of the world, the WRC has adopted sanitation technology which has been developed through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “It is key with every project that we have, we’ve got an element of knowledge dissemination. So we don’t say, ‘just do the project, and then finish and walk away.’ We do training.” She cites the example of the investment they’ve made in MOOC (massive open online courses), which are freely available online. “It’s not just us who are partnering, we also have international lecturers who contribute around sanitation, water and training for public service officials, for business people, for industries.” Dr Molwantwa laments the lack of awareness around the WRC’s work amongst the South African public, as well as some public officials. Dr Melamu considers their work to be the best kept secret. “We need to find the mechanism to now take the WRC out there to make people see the impact of the work that we do, but also where possible to make a difference, change culture and behaviour,” continues Dr Molwantwa.

“We’ve got very good researchers, but scientists are not the best communicators. They communicate in a scientific environment, in a scientific manner. So we also need to start looking at bringing in onboard, within the WRC, service providers from the social sciences, people that can decode and transcribe complex, technical information and make it simple for people to understand, so that we’re not speaking from an ivory tower. We have developed what we call a refined tool. And we are empowering communities to be able to know if their dam or water resource is safe to swim or to see if their activities as a community are contributing to the deterioration of the quality in the water. We’ve done training at a lot of schools. We did that in support of the departmental programme called Adopt a River.” Dr Melamu is excited about positioning the WRC as a market intelligence and data hub for the water and sanitation sector. And, as Dr Molwantwa says, the WRC’s work is for the good of the public. Their doors are open to anyone operating in the public sector with a problem that needs solving. “Start at the WRC,” says Dr Molwantwa. “When we have the information we make sure we get you that information and assist you in being able to understand that information.”


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