A new water research unit at the University of Cape Town aims to help create a sustainable water future.

South Africa is ranked as the 30th driest country in the world, according to the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). Projections noted in National Treasury’s 2012 Budget Review are concerning and show that by 2030 the demand for water in the country will outstrip the ability to supply it. The reality of water shortages hit home more recently as the ongoing drought wreaks havoc across the country. It is therefore essential to find new, innovative and scalable solutions to ensure water security into the future.

Water management in South Africa has to date been less than optimal. “As a nation we have, over time, ignored the importance of treating water as a scarce commodity,” Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane was quoted as saying at the opening of the University of Cape Town’s new Future Water Institute (FWI).

FWI’s focus is to address the issue of water scarcity by pooling research across multiple disciplines to find appropriate and innovative management and technical solutions. Disciplines involved include engineers, environmental scientists, economists, sociologists, and health scientists – a collection of researchers that stretches across ten of the university’s departments in six faculties.

Pooling the research

Exploring alternative water sources will involve looking at discipline related activities around water technologies, water management, and related social components, says Kevin Winter, senior lecturer at UCT in the Environmental and Geographical Science Department. For example, a social scientist might test the attitudes of people toward using greywater or treated effluent, whereas an engineer might be working on a special water cleaning technology.

The interdisciplinary nature of the team helps to address water challenges in a holistic and comprehensive way. Maintaining a broad mix of research inputs and angles strengthens the FWI’s position in the wider water research field.

“Water is a complex system. Everyone brings a particular disciplinary element to understanding how that water is managed,” says Winter. “I don’t see a strong trans-disciplinary group that has held itself together over time and is still producing the kinds of things that we want anywhere in South Africa.”

Finding the wonder in water

Historically, South Africa has relied primarily on surface water as a resource, which, as projections indicate, cannot meet the growing demand. On top of that, many of the country’s rivers are heavily polluted.

A core focus for the FWI will be looking at ways to scale up alternative water sourcing solutions, including storm and rainwater harvesting, treating and reusing effluent from metro areas, and water purification through desalination.

Researchers at the institute will also address scalable ways to extract value from contaminated water. This could, for example, involve cleaning dam water that is eutrophic – overly high in nutrients, often because of agricultural runoff – and harvesting nutrients like phosphorous, which is used to produce fertiliser.

Another area of research involves treating water polluted by acid mine drainage –the outflow of acidic water from metal and coalmines. Acid mine drainage has devastated several water systems in Gauteng’s mining regions.

The institute’s director, Sue Harrison and her team, who are based at UCT’s Chemical Engineering Department, are investigating the viability of wastewater biorefineries, which harvest water and valuable nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous from wastewater. The byproducts from biorefineries can be used to produce biogas.

“We need to think differently about water and what can actually be done to extract value from contaminated water rather than simply saying
‘we’ve got contaminated water, what do we do next?’” says Winter.

Another ongoing research project involves modelling and groundwater analysis of the Cape Flats Aquifer – a large underground body of water that lies beneath the Cape Flats, covering more than 400km. The as yet unmanaged aquifer has the potential to provide Cape Town with billions of litres of water annually.

At this point, the institute is funded by grants to individual researchers, mostly from overseas funders.


With South Africa’s future water accessibility projections looking bleak, there is a palpable urgency to make our water usage more sustainable. The research projects taking place at the FWI offer an exciting glimpse into the possibilities of what can be done, not only to save and harvest water but also to use its waste as a valuable resource.

The Water Hub

In the Franschhoek valley, a decommissioned wastewater treatment plant will be transformed into a water research and innovation centre. One of the Future Water Institute’s core projects, the Water Hub is designed to be an off grid laboratory and training centre for researchers to experiment with using natural water filtration processes.

Now in the early stages of development, the Water Hub should be open to the public by 2019. The future vision of the hub, captured in a video depicting a model of the centre, shows an elegant building surrounded by greenery. Outside stands an array of 10 biofiltration cells: long, rectangular structures holding beds of sand and small stones with a variety of plants. Water from the polluted river that runs alongside the Water Hub and discharges into the Franschhoek River, will flow through these cells. Scientists will monitor each cell to understand how the different plants absorb pollutants and how sand filters can be used to capture and clean contaminated stormwater.

“We are keen to understand how these cells cope with retention and volume of [water] flow,” explains Kevin Winter, director of research at the Water Hub. “We will test nature’s ability to polish contaminated water under these conditions and push the process
to a threshold to understand performance.”

In the research lab, trees protrude from round tanks filled with water, their roots pushing against the transparent tank walls. Here, researchers will study how microbial activity around plant roots can treat polluted water.

The hub will have food gardens and a biodiversity wetland for visitors to enjoy. Two large decommissioned settling tanks from the old wastewater treatment plant will be converted into a restaurant and conference centre.The Water Hub, and the learning it will generate about how natural processes can help clean South Africa’s polluted streams and rivers as part of eco-system services, is a key part of a broader research initiative launched by the University of Cape Town.

The Water Hub requires about R60million to build, according to Winter.  It is hoped this will be sourced through government, private equity and industry.


WORDS Brendon Bosworth