National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Tamiru Abiye

Prof Tamiru Abiye

About three decades ago, hydrogeologist Tamiru Abiye identified the lack of properly qualified surface water and groundwater scientists to solve community-related water problems. Since then, his work has focused on building research capacity to address water scarcity in South Africa.

“The scarcity of research-oriented training to alleviate water shortages is a chronic problem, including in government departments, and this affects policy development and management of water supply at local, regional and national levels,” he says. Abiye set about developing the necessary curriculum and laboratory infrastructure at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), launching the MSc programme in Hydrogeology in 2015, where he is now Professor. This attracts research-oriented postgraduate students who can contribute to knowledge-based responses to water security. As co-ordinator of the programme, Abiye is intent on “filling the national need for trained water research scientists, so that water-supply authorities, the agricultural sector and mining companies are able to manage their resources more wisely”.

Ground-breaking research projects have been undertaken in the programme, including work that has identified carcinogenic radionuclides and toxic metals in groundwater used by communities in gold and coal mining areas. Researchers have screened emerging contaminants in rivers and shallow groundwater which revealed pharmaceuticals and microplastics. Their research has also identified sources of lung cancer-causing radon in radioactive-rich water from mines, and mapped chlorophyll levels and nutrient pollution in the Vaal and Hartbeespoort Dams using drones.

According to Abiye, the biggest threats to water security in South Africa today are climate change, water pollution and an increase in water demand by population, industry, agriculture and mining. “Therefore, a coordinated and knowledge-based response is necessary. This has to be led by qualified water (surface water and groundwater) professionals, which is why my focus is on building human capacity with a strong research capability to deal with these issues,” he says. Along with producing numerous MSc and PhD graduates in the field of water science, Abiye’s work has resulted in national and global collaborative research towards solutions for community water pollution and hundreds of scientific publications.

The urgency of the work is clear for Abiye: “My background, as a person from a rural, water-stressed setting who grew up in poverty, gives me a unique perspective on humanity’s most pressing problem — securing water in the face of population, industrial, climate change and pandemic pressures. This is why I strive to solve water supply and management problems through the training of qualified water professionals. Without the proper knowledge, there is no country that achieves sustainable development,” he says. — Elaine Williams

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

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