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National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Professor Paul Oberholster

For his contribution to water resource management in SA over the last 5 years with special reference to the field of biological passive wastewater treatment.

(Sponsored by the WRC since 2017)

The winner of the 2020/2021 for NSTF-Water Research Commission (WRC) Award was won by Professor Paul Oberholster from the University of the Free State to recognise his scientific contribution to water resource management in South Africa over the past 10 years, with special reference to the field of biological passive wastewater treatment. His research focuses on using algae to treat acid mine drainage and domestic wastewater to facilitate the effective removal of pollutants.

A transformative solution that facilitates the effective and efficient removal of pollutants from wastewater

Professor Paul Oberholster, Director of the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State, was nominated for the NSTF-Water Research Commission Award for an outstanding contribution to sustainable water management, knowledge generation and solutions over the last five to 10 years. His 10-year scientific contribution to water resource management in South Africa has special reference to the field of biological passive wastewater treatment. His research is centred upon the use of algae to treat acid mine drainage and domestic wastewater.

“The sustainable development and global move towards a more circular use of resources where waste is reduced and resources recycled, has driven a paradigm shift within the scientific community with regards to wastewater solutions,” he explains. “In this context I started exploring algae as a possible low-cost passive treatment technology to treat domestic wastewater for reuse, to improve the service delivery of local government, and to significantly reduce the risks of acid mine drainage on the health of communities.”

It’s a critical body of work, particularly in light of increasing climate change and the intensity of both droughts and storm events. Alternative water resources will become increasingly critical, such as water reuse, as well as moving towards more holistic and integrated approaches to water management to meet the country’s needs.

 

Under the leadership of Oberholster, a passive treatment plant was constructed near the town of Carolina while another hybrid system was implemented on the Zaalklapspruit near the town of Balmoral in Mpumalanga. The latter system, developed in collaboration with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Working for Wetland Program, Coaltech and the Water Research Commission, has been running for more than six years.

“The current passive algae treatment technology not only plays a role in the treatment of wastewater for reuse purposes, but the algae biomass forms part of the circular economy,” says Oberholster. “It will create desperately needed job opportunities through aquaculture activities, biofertiliser and bioenergy production in rural areas of South Africa. The passive treatment technology also improves the ecosystem services downstream of wastewater treatment plants and reduces the health risk to local communities.”

This innovative, low-cost, green technology ticks all these intelligent boxes while also providing a walk-away solution for the mining industry. The system is largely self-sustainable and uses no electricity or chemicals, and it can be maintained by a semi-skilled workforce. The work has led to numerous patents being registered, emphasising the value of the work and the potential long-term impact it can have on water resource management across the globe. The work undertaken by Oberholster has led to him being described as a “water warrior” by the Mail & Guardian, and the economic, social and environmental importance of his research and applications are recognised by people and organisations on multiple levels. — Tamsin Oxford

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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