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Press Release 
Heidi Snyman 
The WRC celebrates achievements of 40 years of water research

From 31 August to 1 September 2011, at Emperors Palace, Kempton Park, the WRC will reflect on the achievements regarding water research of the last 40 years.  Given the view that water would be one of South Africa’s most limiting resources in the 21st century, the establishment, in 1971, of the Water Research Commission (WRC) was deemed to be of national importance, in order to generate new knowledge and purposefully promote the country’s water research.

The WRC was established to provide strategic direction and leadership that would provide for the identification of priority areas and appropriate technology transfer as well as ensure that research is well coordinated, adequately funded and involve a wide spectrum of the water research community. 

Over the past 40 years, the WRC played an enormous role to provide the country with solutions and sufficient knowledge to address the water challenges.

The WRC can boast of a significant improvement in irrigation technologies over the past two decades, through a number of WRC-funded projects, with innovative models contributing to increased efficiency in water use planning. One such model is the internationally recognised and award-winning Water Administration System (WAS), which has assisted the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme to save millions of litres per year.

As early as 1996, the WRC funded a study of the effects of acid mine drainage in the Central and East Rand. The study was among the first in the country to synthesise various aspects of flooding, including water quality and expected long-term impacts.

To date, about 66 studies have been completed on wetland-related topics. With WRC investment there has been growing research capacity. An active community of practice has also developed around wetland research. Recently the WRC Wet-Management Series was produced to provide users with tools to achieve well-informed wetland management and rehabilitation.

About 9% of research investment has been in groundwater research. “Through WRC support, two main institutions were established, the Institute of Groundwater Studies (IGS) at the University of Free State, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Chair for Geohydrology, at the University of Western Cape” says Dr Shafick Adams.

Since its inception in 1971 the WRC has funded research in the field of membranes. Since then, membranes have become increasingly acceptable as a viable option in the treatment of water and effluents in South Africa. This includes the treatment of effluent water and concentrated waste streams, and cleaning water for domestic and industrial use, as well as in the food and beverage industry where the highest quality of water is needed for compliance with health and safety regulations. South Africa saw the first application of membrane technology to treat water for drinking purposes in 1990, at Bitterfontein on the West Coast. The system, which sources its water from three boreholes, serves a population of 5 000.

Matimba power station, situated near Lephalale in Witbank, saw the application of research toward reducing water usage in energy production through dry-cooling systems. The research, which was a collaborative effort by the WRC, Eskom, the CSIR, and the United States Bureau for Mechanical Engineering Research. Today, Matimba is still the largest direct dry-cooled power station in the world, with an annual send-out power of approximately 24 000GWh.

Dr Valerie Naidoo, a research manager at the WRC, says “Originally the focus of wastewater research used to be the end-of-pipe wastewater treatment processes. The traditional target was also sectors like the pulp, paper and brewery industries, Eskom and Sasol. Recently, the focus has shifted to cleaner production and treatment at source as well as a move towards a cleaner production paradigm (for example using more biodegradable chemicals). This entails a changed mindset towards using less water, and thus producing less waste”.

The WRC will celebrate 40 years of excellence with a technical conference on 31 August to 1 September 2011 at Emperors Palace, Johannesburg at which it will deliberate on existing research knowledge and knowledge gaps, particularly related to the following themes:

1.         Water security in a water scarce country

2.         Sustainability: Water ecosystems and the water and energy nexus

3.         Water quality

4.         Water use efficiency (water demand/water conservation)

5.         Water technology

One hundred and twenty five (125) eminent scientists and subject experts are presenting at this conference presenting on progress and knowledge gaps related to these themes. This event will also be used to make recommendations regarding water research needs in the medium and long term and we expect 400 delegates from the sector including national, provincial and local government, water boards, research institutions, academia, industry and NGOs. 


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