The interdisciplinary approach of Future Water

21 July 2018 | Story Sue Harrison. Photo Anne Robberts Flickr Read time 6 min.

Both globally and in South Africa we find ourselves colliding with water scarcity – Cape Town in crisis presents a complex picture in terms of provision, equity and ongoing impact. It came before we were ready, yet water scarcity is recognised as a top risk facing humankind. South Africa’s demand will exceed current supply by 17% by 2030, with traditionally normal rainfall.

How do we prepare ourselves to handle this such that the world and our country thrive? As researchers, how do we approach these complex or “wicked” problems?

Traditionally, academics have relied on their deep knowledge of their own field of study to provide new insights into tough problems. However, solutions to intractable problems may need expertise from multiple disciplines; these often work alongside each other using their own toolboxes and sharing their results, in a multi-disciplinary way.

Traditionally, academics have relied on their deep knowledge of their own field of study to provide new insights into tough problems.

Increasingly, interdisciplinary engagement needs researchers to jointly use their expertise to develop solutions to today’s “wicked” problems. Through interdisciplinary interaction using integrated and critical thinking, they deepen their disciplinary knowledge but broaden its reach and applicability.

Transdisciplinary research extends yet further to interconnect knowledge, understanding and technical innovation, to address multiple requirements and mitigate multiple risks, typically using engaged scholarship.

Disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches build on each other, allowing researchers to build new knowledge and co-create real-world solutions to complex problems, an approach imperative to addressing water scarcity.  

UCT is recognised locally and globally for its water-focused research. Flagships include climate change, waste-water treatment, sanitation, urban water management, the position of water in society viewed through anthropology and water politics lenses, water quality and public health, acid mine drainage prevention and treatment, closing industrial water circuits, river systems, and environmental ecology and anthropology.

Future Water brings together researchers across six faculties and 11 departments to wrestle with these issues in diverse groupings.

Increasingly, a single disciplinary lens limits the level of influence to mitigate complex problems such as water scarcity and equity, and implement solutions like water-sensitive design. Addressing this, UCT launched its interdisciplinary research institute, Future Water, in late 2016.

Future Water brings together researchers across six faculties and 11 departments to wrestle with these issues in diverse groupings. Its drivers are urgency in providing enhanced capacity to manage water infrastructure and scarcity, the need to adapt to water scarcity and build resilience through effective governance, the need to innovate for water supply to meet demand and the imperative of technically sound, socially acceptable and sustainable water management.

Future Water’s approach is illustrated through the conversations at its recent symposium tackling equity and efficiency in allocating water in South Africa. Here inputs traversed water justice, water-sensitive resource management, behavioural economics to nudge adaptation, equity issues including affordability, and the politics framing the current crisis, through to collaborative platforms for resilient futures using mine water as the case study.

These narratives led to robust discussions on issues of management of water scarcity, influencing behaviour through knowledge of perceptions, and taking responsibility at individual, household, business, agriculture and government levels. Future Water continues to question existing ways of thinking and doing, navigate complexity and seek practical workable reality through informed, different and disruptive thinking.

Future Water aims to inform the necessary new paradigm around water, its scarcity and equitable access through rigorous inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to co-create new knowledge and new ways to meet the new ‘normal’. We contribute tools and skill sets, expertise and understanding, and grow leadership for the future.

We invite the many UCT researchers with expertise in addressing water scarcity, water-sensitive design and water equity to engage with Future Water. For those outside of UCT, your engagement too is sought to co-create sustainable long-term best practice around water.


This story was published in the inaugural issue of Umthombo, a magazine featuring research stories from across the university. 

Umthombo is the isiXhosa word for a natural spring of water or fountain. The most notable features of a fountain are its natural occurrence and limitlessness. Umthombo as a name positions the University of Cape Town, and this publication in particular, as an undepletable well of knowledge.

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