Women and youth in South Africa tackle water scarcity together with Utrecht University researchers

Researchers, an NGO, and residents of the village of Moyaneng in South Africa have together worked on solutions to a lack of clean drinking water, food, and energy. As co-researchers, young people and women from Moyaneng did a large part of the research themselves. “This is a unique approach to transdisciplinary research with direct impact on local communities,” says principal investigator Marjanneke Vijge, associate professor at Utrecht University.  

Photo of a community meeting
Co-researcher and local Moyaneng resident Nkarabeleng Matabane presenting her research in a community meeting. Photo: Ecochamps team

“Through our research, the community is now united and convinced that they can take action themselves to solve the problems they face. And they know what to do, because the solutions are their own.” This is not the voice of a university researcher who spends her days at a computer on campus, but Nkarabeleng Matabane, a young woman of 22 years who lives in Moyaneng, a village in Matatiele in South Africa. She is talking about research she contributed to by sending voice messages via WhatsApp. In this village where she was born and raised in the Eastern Cape, internet and telephone connection is poor. Her research is part of a transdisciplinary research project funded by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and NWO investigating how communities manage resources such as water, food, and energy. 

The village where Matabane lives depends on open wells for drinking water, and these are often contaminated. There is no waste collection, and the dirty water makes people sick. In addition, the wells contain little water. This is due to drought caused by climate change and the wattle, an encroaching exotic tree which takes up a lot of groundwater. 

What makes the Ecochamps unique is that they themselves come from the community and know what is appropriate and acceptable in that culture


As part of the research, community members have been working on finding nuanced, place-based solutions to the increasing freshwater shortage. “One solution is to cut down the wattle, which will bring more water into the springs and improve the grassland for the cattle. In my village, our research shows that that was a good solution,” says Matabane. “But in another village, the residents need the wood from the wattle tree as firewood and to build fences”. It's not a good solution there to cut down all the wattle.” 

Another outcome of the research is to keep water sources clean by not letting cattle drink from them. “What also helps is to no longer use disposable diapers, but reusable diapers. Now, there are used nappies everywhere. I learned in the study that our grandparents were already using reusable nappies. There was no waste anywhere at the time.” 

Collaboration between universities, communities and NGOs 

The research was set up by Utrecht University and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the University of Fort Hare and North-West University in South Africa. “The research is transdisciplinary and focused on impact. We want to strengthen the position of young people and women in the management of water, food and energy and thereby contribute to social justice,” says principal investigator Marjanneke Vijge. “That's why we wanted to work with people in the community as much as possible, and from the beginning. Through an NGO, we connected with the community doing the research with us.” Twelve Ecochamps—community members already working with the NGO Environmental and Rural Solutions — were involved in the research. Nkarabeleng Matabane is one of them. 

The research is transdisciplinary and focused on impact. We want to strengthen the position of young people and women in the management of water, food and energy, and thereby contribute to social justice

Careful approach  

The Ecochamps were co-researchers. They brainstormed about which questions to ask in surveys, conducted the surveys, and helped to interpret their results. Matabane: “I advised not to ask questions that were too personal. The researchers planned to ask about a household's income or the number of cattle villagers keep. I said no, you shouldn't do that. People will think you want to send thieves on to them. People are afraid of theft. There is no need to ask those personal questions. It's about the situation of the whole community.” 

The Ecochamps also made sure that the community was approached in a culturally sensitive way. “In the past, researchers came into the village and walked into people's yards uninvited,” says Matabane. “You shouldn't do that. We have always asked permission first from the chief, the traditional leader of the village. We visit him and explain in detail what we are coming for, what we will do and how the research can help the community. Only after permission did we go to the households.” Matabane also presented, in the local language, the results of the research in a community meeting. “There was also consultation about which measures are appropriate. You can't just start cutting down wattle trees somewhere, that's up to the people to decide.” As a result of this approach, the community accepted many of the proposed solutions. 

Pre-conceived ideas 

“Without the Ecochamps, we wouldn't have been able to do this,” says Saul Ngarava, a researcher on the project. Ngarava previously worked at the University of Fort Hare and is now a postdoc at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute. “What makes these Ecochamps unique is that they themselves come from the community and know what is appropriate and acceptable in that culture.” To make real impact with this kind of transdisciplinary research, it's important that researchers really listen to the local community, Ngarava says. And that is made possible by the co-researchers. 

Photo of wattle trees in the South African landscape
In Moyaneng the wells contain little water. This is in part due to wattle, an encroaching exotic tree which takes up a lot of groundwater. Photo: Ecochamps team

“Researchers, of course, like any human being, have pre-conceived ideas that don't necessarily fit the local context,” Ngarava says. “That's why before you do anything else, you have to really listen carefully. And then, together with the co-researchers, redefine the possible solutions. That way, you find solutions that can also be used in practice for the community.” Not only the solutions themselves but also how they were presented and discussed with the community was determined by the co-researchers. “They were central to how we engaged the community.” 

Wider impact 

The Ecochamps followed training at every stage of the study—not only in conducting interviews but also in the ethical aspects of this, as well as in how the results are bundled and presented. This co-creation process thus not only created impact by providing solutions to the community but also by strengthening the skills and knowledge of all involved. 

“We also looked at how the community, especially women and young people from low-income households, can have more say at higher levels of government”, says Vijge. To this end, laws and regulations applying to this specific region of South Africa were studied, and the team interviewed local policymakers. In addition, comparative analyses of legal frameworks across Europe and South Africa have helped understand how local communities can manage their own water, energy and food resources. With its successes, the project is not ending here. “We are currently exploring how to upscale this unique transdisciplinary approach to living labs in the region and across South Africa,” she says.  

This piece is adapted from a news article by Joris Tielens originally published on the NWO website.