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Dhesigen Naidoo 

Coming of age – Moving knowledge to action

2015 sees us entering the milestone of our 21st year of democracy. Our country is a young adult, and none too soon as the challenges that we face are going to require the creativity and adventure of an adolescent as well as the maturity of an adult to be managed successfully. The reality of our water scarcity and our insufficient energy security has become stark. The negative knock-on effects on food and nutritional security as well as health security are increasingly sharpened.

In addition, we are facing this in a time of budgetary tightening and further economic contraction. The temptation in such times is strong to gather all your available resources and invest in Band-Aid solutions to address the immediate problems and shore up the ability of the state to ensure the social security net. While this might provide short-term relief in many quarters, this does not amount to an investment in our future prosperity and well-being.

We need a combination of short-term interventions to address the immediate challenges and relieve the incredible stress on the water system, while concomitantly developing smart, creative, innovative and sustainable medium- to long-term solutions for both national water security as well as international competitiveness. While some may consider this incomprehensible in the wake of lead articles on a weekly basis highlighting the precarious nature of South Africa’s current water fortunes, others will recall that many of the countries that we today consider highly successful had the beginnings of that growth trajectory in times of extreme hardship.

South Korea (Republic of Korea) is today regarded as one of the world’s most successful economies with Korean brands in electronics, motor vehicles and communications being household favourites worldwide. In the modern era, the turnaround of Rep. Korea from a primarily agrarian, largely subsistence economy to become one of the world’s leading industrial economies had its genesis in the devastating civil war of the 1950s, with the conscious choice to use the pathway of a knowledge-based economy as its route to post-conflict recovery. Similarly, Finland, now regarded as one of the most innovative countries in Europe on the back of such successes as forestry biotechnology, logistics and wireless communication, began its knowledge-based innovation journey in the 1990s with its own economic crash precipitated with Perestroika.  Until that point, Finland had enjoyed economic success as the gateway for the world to the then isolated Russian economy. From the most basic consumables, to the most sophisticated devices sourced from the Western world, the preferred pathway was through the Finnish corridor. Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the great thaw in the Cold War saw a rush from the West to interact directly with Moscow and the implications for the Finnish economy were dire. The Finnish response was, as had happened with Rep. Korea before, an active and intensive investment in science, technology and innovation to ensure a much more competitive future to Finland. And what we have seen in the last 25 years is the rise of small, remote Finland to become a global player of note.  This is a narrative that can be repeated for most countries that occupy the top listings in the World Competitiveness Yearbook. This is also a choice that South Africa has declared itself on as a matter of official policy and more recently reiterated in the manifesto of the ruling party in the run up to the 2014 national elections.

The biggest focus of South Africa’s mine-water challenge has been the three large Gauteng basins. The manner in which we tackle the long-term solutions must afford the prospect of not only managing one of the biggest pollution challenges, but also the opportunity to become a world leader in solutions for mine-water and brine challenges – a fundamental global challenge for the 21st century. We have the research-derived knowledge that gives us formulas for intervention that will not only yield a freshwater resource, but also holds the potential for significant minerals recovery from the polluted mine-water.

The year 2015 must be a point of inflection as we up the game toward a more entrenched knowledge-based economy. In the water domain the opportunities are enormous and the need is gargantuan – from tackling the challenge of acid mine-water to energy-efficient localized wastewater treatment to low/no-water sanitation solutions. The achievement of a higher level of water security and the expansion of the frontiers of dignity through accessible safe sanitation will require us as the water science and technology community to up the game. We need to accelerate our efforts to bring Knowledge to Action. This requires us to more actively package scientifically-derived knowledge in a form that brings a much larger group of people into the conversation in a manner that strongly empowers participation and influences decision-making. We also need to expand our efforts to bring laboratory-proven solutions to demonstration, as the bridge to on-the-ground implementation at scale. In the Water Research Commission portfolio alone we have more than 50 such candidates. The third vital component of the Knowledge to Action saga is the deepening and expansion of existing partnerships and the development of new ones – partnerships across sectors (public and private), across domains and disciplines and covering the entire innovation value chain. Addressing South Africa’s immediate water and sanitation challenges while simultaneously building our economic competitiveness, is the best recipe to ensure sustainability. Let us use 2015 to build the South Africa incorporate team that gears us to that prosperous future. A future that ensures a water-secure South Africa, with universal access to safe services, and an opportunity to become a world leader in water and sanitation solutions and technologies.

Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of the Water Research Commission of South Africa.

Map showing three large Gauteng basins
 Dhesigen Naidoo, WRC CEO
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