College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Renowned Pollution Research Group Reborn as the WASH Centre

UKZN’s acclaimed Pollution Research Group (PRG) has been re-established as a research centre titled: the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Research and Development Centre (WASH R&D Centre).

The PRG – created in the 1970s – is housed in the basement of the Chemical Engineering building on the Howard College campus. Originating from initiatives that focused on chemical engineering research into the textile industry and related environmental issues, and on closed loop recycling of water, chemicals and energy in the textile industry, the PRG was established after national attention turned to the critical importance of water for development and the negative effects of industrial effluents and waste on the environment.

The PRG has distinguished itself through applied research on water quality, closed loop recycling, reclamation of valuable resources such as water, chemicals and energy, and wastewater management.

Its research has provided important support for the development of technologies and techniques in water and sanitation, and it has disseminated its work through numerous publications, conferences, workshops and other events. Work done by the PRG aligns closely with UKZN’s goal to promote African-led globalisation through African scholarship, expressed through its four research flagships: Social Cohesion; African Health; Big Data and Informatics, and the African City of the Future.

Connected to a large national and international network, the PRG has received several grants. Key funders such as the Water Research Commission (WRC), eThekwini Water and Sanitation (EWS) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have sustained its activities and enabled it to pursue a long-term vision. It is working on several collaborative projects with its key funders and others.

Led by Professor Chris Buckley since 1986 and joined by Ms Susan Mercer in recent years, its membership has grown to 34 staff members and an increasing number of postgraduate students – many of its members, researchers and alumni are sought-after experts on waste, testing and innovative sanitation solutions.

A focus on capacity building and providing mentoring to both UKZN and international visiting students, has resulted in 22 PhD and 93 masters students graduating from UKZN after completing research supervised or co-supervised by staff within the PRG. The group has been involved in developing and lecturing courses within Chemical Engineering (as well as courses on topics like faecal sludge management), supporting undergraduate engineering student projects, and providing funding and projects for postgraduate students.

The new WASH R&D Centre will continue to extend and enhance its versatility and expertise as it incorporates staff it works with from other Schools and disciplines. Its research scope has expanded beyond chemical engineering to include agricultural economics, crop and soil sciences, microbiology, chemistry, mechanical and civil engineering, and development studies.

Over the past decade, the PRG has focused especially on addressing sanitation service delivery challenges, particularly through supporting testing of innovative sanitation technologies and the development of techniques for the characterisation of various excreta streams.

The Centre’s key activities include research support to EWS on aspects of water and sanitation service delivery and management; provision of technical, engineering and laboratory support to developers of new sanitation technologies being tested in the field; research into the circular economy and the link between sanitation and agriculture; engaging with communities and households participating in water and sanitation research projects; supervision of postgraduate students in projects related to water, sanitation, agriculture and health; and strengthening existing collaborations with funders, government bodies, research organisations and industry, and forging new relationships.

Its new status will enable the WASH R&D Centre to improve the quality, quantity and visibility of the UKZN’s research output, and to provide a better research environment for the cohesive group of academics involved in research and capacity building. Its new identity reflects its focus on the environmental, technological, economic, social and engineering aspects of wastewater recycling and re-use, and decentralised sanitation technologies, as well as its quest to become a centre of excellence in research in this field.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied