College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Master’s in Hydrology graduate, Ms Zama Ndlovu.

Master’s Research Uses Hydrological Models to Investigate Runoff in Urban Areas

Ms Zama Ndlovu’s Masters in Hydrology utilised a combination of Geographic Information Systems, remote sensing and machine learning methodologies.

Her research focused on classifying land cover and mapping impervious surfaces in urban areas that are usually covered by large areas of impervious land cover. This can lead to flooding, infrastructure damage and even loss of life during extreme weather events.

Ndlovu conducted an evaluation and improvement of runoff simulation as well as design flood estimation in urban areas. Her research incorporated the utilisation of the Agricultural Catchment Research Unit (ACRU) hydrological model developed at UKZN and the South African adaptation of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) Curve Number (CN) model, known as SCS-SA. She focused on urban catchments in Pretoria and Pietermaritzburg.

Ndlovu emphasised the critical importance of accurately estimating impermeable surfaces, which encompass pavements, roads, roofs, parking lots and other elements, as they constitute a significant component of the urban landscape and are essential for accurate urban modelling.

This topic flowed from Ndlovu’s honours project, with the challenges she encountered during that study motivating her to conduct further research to improve the estimation of design floods in urban areas, as there are many gaps in this field of research and she hoped to contribute to improving and simplifying the modelling process of urban areas for future analyses.

Her research findings suggest that, in contrast to their rural and agricultural counterparts, urban areas have a higher likelihood of increased runoff volumes, elevated flood peaks, and heightened vulnerability to flooding during extreme weather events. Furthermore, urban areas that lack robust drainage systems are even more susceptible to severe flooding, leading to potential damage to property and infrastructure, and, in the worst-case scenario, the loss of human life.

Ndlovu began her master’s during the COVID-19 pandemic, which created challenges for her data collection and added a sense of anxiety, especially when working from home reduced her access to UKZN resources and amenities and led to delays. She had to make sacrifices to complete her research and missed out on leisure time with family and friends, but found all the challenges worthwhile when she handed in her thesis.

Originally from Pietermaritzburg, deciding to study at UKZN was a natural choice for Ndlovu thanks to its research expertise and the resources available for her undergraduate and postgraduate studies. She was eager to do her research under the supervision of Umgeni Water Chair of Water Resources Research and Innovation Professor Jeff Smithers who supervised her honours dissertation.

Ndlovu’s experience at UKZN was a positive one; she made friends, established professional networks and appreciated the willingness of UKZN professors, lecturers and fellow researchers to assist when needed.

Since finishing her studies, Ndlovu has completed an internship and is working on climate change mitigation projects. She plans to expand her professional experience in the working world and is considering enrolling for a PhD later in her career to complement her practical experience.

Ndlovu thanked her mother, Ms Precious Ndlovu for providing strong support throughout her schooling and professional career.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini