College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

PhD Tackles Natural Resource Conservation for Sustainable Water Supply

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Dr Catherine Hughes graduated with her PhD in Hydrology after using validated hydrological modelling to demonstrate the possibility of deriving sustainable water supply from a catchment – for human and ecosystem use – if natural resource assets are conserved and rehabilitated.

These natural resources include grasslands, wetlands and rivers, which deliver vital ecosystem services to society and are referred to as “ecological infrastructure”.

Hughes investigated different forms of human-induced degradation affecting the delivery of ecosystem services. She focused on the uMngeni catchment, exploring the potential hydrological benefits of either conservation or rehabilitation of ecological infrastructure. Her thesis also touched on wider issues associated with globalisation and urbanisation in the catchment, and their impact on water delivery. She emphasised the need for stakeholders to work together towards optimal investment decision-making with regard to ecological infrastructure projects, saying these can protect people from water-related risk and help to ensure food and water security.

‘It is increasingly necessary for the full value of water, and its contribution to human life, livelihoods and business, to be recognised by society. A sustainable supply of clean water is regulated by ecosystems, and healthy ecosystems facilitate the delivery of those benefits,’ said Hughes.

Hughes is the daughter of Dr George Hughes, a University of Natal alumnus and world-renowned expert on sea turtles who was CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Her father inspired her love of nature, teaching her a deep respect for the natural world and its people. She received her Master’s in Conservation Biology at the University of Cape Town, proceeding to work in conservation and research-related fieldwork and then as an environmental scientist, travelling to several African countries as a hydrological and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) consultant. She has been the a programme manager for the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Threatened Grassland Species Programme for two years, implementing conservation action for priority grassland species in South Africa through an ecosystems approach. She is about to return to consulting with an international company, specifically in mine water management.

She expressed gratitude to Mr Myles Mander and her co-supervisor, Professor Roland Schulze, for sparking her interest in ecosystem services and hydrology. She thanked her supervisor, Professor Graham Jewitt, for his patience and guidance, as well as staff at the Centre for Water Resources Research for their moral and technical support. She gave special thanks to the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership research team; especially Gary de Winnaar, Duncan Hay, Sanele Ngubane, Sesethu Matta and Hlengiwe Ndlovu, and expressed her gratitude to her friends, mother, Lee, father, George and brother, Mitchell.

Video Link: https://www.beautifulnews.co.za/stories/catherine-hughes

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal