Ms Gugulethu Tshabalala, an intern project manager at the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) in Pietermaritzburg, graduated from UKZN with a Master’s degree in Environmental Science for research conducted at Fountainhill Estate (FHE) near Wartburg, which explored the impact of land use practices on sediment yields and nutrient loads on grasslands and maize crops.
Gugulethu’s work formed part of a Water Research Commission (WRC) project* which involves erosional control and monitoring in a rural setting. The technical project, supervised by Professor Trevor Hill, comprised hours in the field installing tanks dug into fields to measure water runoff and quality from grazing land and maize crops to assess the impact of erosion and sedimentation from agricultural practices – important work in a water-scarce country threatened by land degradation and desertification.
In examining which practice, whether rangeland or maize cultivation, loses more soil and water nutrients, Gugulethu discovered there was minimal runoff from the pasture site, concluding that the 100% vegetation cover provided by the pasture resulted in no nutrients being lost thanks to good root penetration, ultimately minimising erosion. The maize till site with its exposed soil experienced loss of soil and nutrients, leading Gugulethu to suggest that intercropping could be considered a potential solution.
Describing the project as difficult but worthwhile, she said it taught her new skills as she negotiated project management, co-ordinating with the farm where her trials were situated, purchasing materials, and asking for assistance with some aspects of her research. She said with Hill’s faith in her capability, she learned to take initiative, even attending farmers’ meetings to learn more about pest management on her crop trial.
Gugulethu developed skills that she had been introduced to in her undergraduate studies, such as report-writing, as well as soft skills like interpersonal relations, patience, requesting assistance, and setting of boundaries. These skills, she said, have helped her assist other students across disciplines starting their own studies.
Gugulethu has been applying her skills in her role at DUCT, where she is working on a three-year Groen Sebenza internship, managing the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP). The URP project aims to increase resilience of vulnerable communities through interventions. The grassland restoration component of the project has given her the experience of working with rural communities and combining her scientific and people skills to meet new challenges and step outside her comfort zone.
Her research can still be built on, and she is keen to explore what collaborations it could produce in the future. In 2019, research took her to Canada to present at the International Conference on Water, Informatics, Sustainability and the Environment. With the international research space she has enjoyed and being a believer in lifelong learning and service to others, she hopes to gain experience overseas one day, planning to continue with PhD studies when she has settled on a topic.
Gugulethu is the outgoing president of the Pietermaritzburg campus branch of the International Association for Impact Assessment in South Africa, and served as a guest lecturer and a demonstrator for other students in the Discipline of Geography during her postgraduate studies.
A committed Christian, she relied on her faith in God to complete her postgraduate studies, backed by her sisters and family, church, and fellow postgraduate Geography and Hydrology students.
Gugulethu thanked the WRC for the opportunities provided to postgraduate students, which made her presentation in Canada possible and not only enabled her to complete her research, but also provided benefits by situating it in a larger project with frequent progress reports, deliverables, student development, and continuous investigations.
She acknowledged staff at FHE, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development at Cedara, Umgeni Water and DUCT for their assistance and support.
*WRC Report No K5/2402: Assessing the Impact of Erosion and Sediment Yield from Farming and Forestry Systems in Selected Catchments of South Africa.
Words: Christine Cuénod