5 questions with Amanda Mkhonza, environmental lawyer

01 April 2020 | Story Birgit Ottermann. Photo Libby Young. Read time 5 min.
Amanda Mkhonza, part of UCT’s Institute of Marine & Environmental Law, is working towards legal protection for South Africa’s most strategic water areas – which currently aren’t recognised by the law.
Amanda Mkhonza, part of UCT’s Institute of Marine & Environmental Law, is working towards legal protection for South Africa’s most strategic water areas – which currently aren’t recognised by the law.

Amanda Mkhonza joined the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Institute of Marine & Environmental Law in 2018 as a lecturer in environmental law. She has a special interest in the legal protection of South Africa’s strategic water source areas. This will form the foundation of her PhD, which she will commence next year.

1. Why is the legal protection of our strategic water source areas so important?

Strategic water source areas are key mountain catchments that supply South Africa’s rivers, lakes and dams with 50% of their fresh water. Although disproportionately small in size – forming only 8% of our landscape – their role is critical in supporting some 70% of our irrigated agriculture, 60% of our local economy and more than 50% of our population. Unfortunately, they are currently not mentioned or regulated by law, hence the urgent need to protect them legally.

2. How much legal protection is there for South Africa’s strategic water sources currently?

Only about 11% of our water sources lie within some protected areas (such as national parks and nature reserves) and are thus inadvertently regulated through the laws of protected areas. These laws have a terrestrial focus, not intended for fresh water, and are riddled with legislative anomalies, which further complicate matters. Therefore, even the 11% established “protection” is compromised in practice.


“Only about 11% of our water sources lie within protected areas.”

3. Could you give a snapshot of the research you are currently doing?

I am writing a case note on a decision recently handed down by the South African Water Tribunal. It concerns a proposed coal mine within a strategic water source area in Mpumalanga. The decision is seemingly controversial, as it doesn’t recognise strategic water source areas as relevant when deciding on a water-use licence for the mine. However, the lessons learned are crucial for the development of a future legal framework that deals with strategic water sources.

4. What do you hope to achieve from your research?

In scoping the various environmental laws that have the potential to protect our strategic water source areas and in analysing their ability to do so, I hope to draw inspiration from the legal pathways taken in other parts of the world. This will guide me in tailor-making suggestions for the development of niche laws in South Africa that will finally protect the role and value of our strategic water source areas, while managing impacts therein and regulating potential threats.

5. As an early career researcher, what is the most enjoyable part of research for you?

The journey of discovery. I think this is the most fundamental aspect of research, yet it is possibly the most underrated. It is not reaching the conclusion that excites me. Rather, it is the process of engaging materials, asking questions, pondering the contextual, historical, political, scientific and socio-economic background to figure out why things are the way they are in the environment and how I can bring about change. That is what excites me most.

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