The Water Research Commission (WRC), UKZN’s Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems (CTAFS) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) hosted a dialogue on the topic of transitioning towards a circular economy post COVID-19 that featured input from staff, researchers and students in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, and the CTAFS.
More than 30 participants attended the virtual dialogue, which was opened by WRC Executive Manager Professor Sylvester Mpandeli. He introduced the topic and the WRC’s history in producing policy-relevant research on the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus. Mpandeli said the WRC was proud to work alongside strategic partners including the ARC, UKZN and the CTAFS.
‘The purpose of this dialogue is to map the way forward and ensure that we develop pathways that build resilience in the water and energy sector in order to improve service delivery,’ he said.
WRC Group Executive Dr Stanley Liphadzi thanked participants for contributing to building a knowledge base to prepare for life after the pandemic and prioritise the recycling, redesign and reuse of resources to efficiently meet the need for increasingly scarce water, food and land for South Africa’s growing, predominantly poor population.
Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi of the CTAFS presented on the role of transformative approaches in informing policy and decision-making post COVID-19, noting UKZN’s instrumental role in helping the WRC to develop its WEF focus. He said that disruptions caused by the pandemic indicated that fundamental societal shifts are required to address the vulnerabilities it has exposed, calling for transformative adaptation approaches with multiple foci.
Mabhaudhi thanked the WRC for supporting UKZN’s research in this field, and introduced postdoctoral researchers Drs Sithabile Hlahla and Vimbayi Chimonyo who had benefited from the WRC’s capacity building efforts. Hlahla and Chimonyo presented on why transformation is needed, what is needed for that transformation, whether this transformation is for everyone in every sector, and the challenges associated with adopting transformative adaptation.
‘The pandemic creates an opportunity for us to implement transformative change or to start mapping the pathway through which we can transform our society in terms of changing the direction towards more sustainability and building resilience in communities,’ said Mabhaudhi, emphasising the need to move towards transdisciplinarity.
Senior Lecturer in Crop Science Dr Alfred Odindo outlined the principles of the circular economy, addressing different pathways to achieving it, particularly in terms of nutrients as current agricultural systems deplete non-renewable resources.
Odindo, who is the Principal Investigator for South Africa on the international, transdisciplinary Rural-Urban Nexus: Establishing a Nutrient Loop to Improve City Region Food System Resilience project, provided local examples of opportunities for waste minimisation and nutrient recovery in a circular economy in both food and sanitation systems, and emphasised the need for transformative approaches to create sustainable and resilient systems for the recovery of nutrients.
Professor Sue Walker from the ARC spoke about the implications of COVID-19 for food security and livelihoods, describing the changes that occurred during the pandemic that doubled hunger rates. She provided an overview of South African agriculture, and projected the likely impact of COVID-19 on food insecurity in the country.
WRC CEO Mr Dhesigen Naidoo closed the proceedings, re-emphasising the need for a fundamental restructuring to combat inequality.
‘It’s up to the research and innovation sector to give guidance on what kind of mechanisms can be empowered to effect this change in a meaningful way,’ he said.
Words: Christine Cuénod