K52354 Ecological infrastructure

K5/2354: Demonstration of how healthy ecological infrastructure can be utilized to secure water for the benefit of society and the green economy through a programmatic research approach based on selected landscapes.

Funded by: Water Research Commission

April 2014 to March 2020

Lead Organisation: Centre for Water Resources Research (CWRR) - UKZN

Partner Organisations: Pollution Research Group (UKZN); Institute for Water and Wastewater Technology (DUT); School of Built Environment and Development Studies (UKZN); Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA); Vrije Universiteit; Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University; Umgeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership

Project web page: https://sites.google.com/site/ueipwrc2354/

Project Description:


Aquatic ecosystem services are essential to sustain life, development in all its forms, and the environment. In many areas of South Africa the availability of these services is often limited and, in turn, regulates the nature and pace of social and economic development. The Convention of Biological Diversity through Strategic Goal D aims to Enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services with Target 14 specifically addressing water i.e. By 2020, ecosystems that provide essential services, including services related to water, and contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, are restored and safeguarded, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities, and the poor and vulnerable.

In South Africa, the concept of Ecological Infrastructure is being promoted to achieve this. Ecological infrastructure refers to functioning ecosystems that deliver valuable services to people (SANBI, 2012) which highlights the importance of social and ecological connections i.e. social-ecological systems (SES). This provides an alignment with the WRC Green Village lighthouse, the aims of which are to uplift the standard of living by transforming an impoverished dependent rural and peri-urban community to a self-sufficient independent community through sustainable development that is informed by integration of science and technology. Anderies et al (2004) provide a framework for a SES approach through which the link between resource users and public infrastructure providers is seen as a key aspect affecting the robustness of such systems, and so provides an approach where governance, institutional and financial mechanisms, inclusive of civil society, can be considered. The SES approach highlights a need to move beyond assessments which are focused only on human benefits, to one which reflects on how achieving and sharing these benefits feeds back to influence governance and policy (Reyers et al 2013) and provide for a holistic and shared appreciation for how the benefits of ecological infrastructure are realized.

This will facilitate the emergence of integrated understandings and shared meanings that are necessary foundations for achieving the intent of IWRM (Bodhanya 2010). The resilience of social-ecological systems is thus determined in significant ways by how stakeholders network, collaborate, learn about and strive to manage demands for, and distribution of, the benefits that can be derived from ecosystem goods and services (Jewitt, 2002; Biggs et al., 2012) ecological infrastructure. With this understanding it may be concluded that the process of sharing benefits is a significant determinant of the structure, function and resilience of social-ecological systems that are logically bounded at the scale of river basins. (Adapted from Breen and others, 2010).

This introduction provides background for this research and summarises a preceding joint venture of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban University of Technology and others in support of integrated water resources management at the basin scale (UKZN and DUT, 2012) and is aligned and integrated with the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP). The overall purpose of this joint venture is three fold:

  1. To grow our knowledge base in institutional and technical areas in support of effective governance and management of the river basin
  2. To build the capacity of our current and future generation of river basin leaders, managers, practitioners and researchers
  3. To act as a catalyst for collective and coordinated action

It is within this conceptual and spatial context that we wish to conduct research. With a focus on the case study catchments identified by the UEIP, i.e. the Midmar Dam catchment, the Baynesspruit and the Palmiet, within a broader integrative framework for the uMngeni as a whole, the overall objective is To develop and test an adaptable multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral socio-ecological water resource governance framework in selected catchments or basin(s) through action research for inclusive and participatory catchment management. This research is aimed at responding to the green economy, water for growth and development, and government strategies/ priorities as reflected in the National Development Plan and other strategies, such as the WRC Green Village lighthouse and knowledge tree.

The case studies selected by the UEIP provide a suitable range in terms of biophysical environment, trajectory of development (rural, peri-urban, urban), intervention approaches and issues which they represent within the broader uMngeni catchment.



  1. To investigate and report on the status of catchment land-use and water resource quality in the selected catchment(s )
  2. Cost the impacts of the degradation of ecosystem infrastructure on water users from different stakeholder experiences using an evidence based approach
  3. Investigate how an intact ecological infrastructure could secure and enhance the benefits provided to society and economy in the catchment.
  4. Investigate how investment in the protection and enhancement of the environmental asset base (or ecological infrastructure) of the Umngeni catchment could contribute to resilient economic growth, greater social equity and justice and the reduction of environmental risks, thereby addressing the goals of the green economy (UNEP, 2010).
  5. With the aid of the stakeholder water resource management framework produced in phase 1, develop a cost effective conservation management strategy based on the principles of the green economy.
  6. Develop and train actors in the Catchment in an appropriate governance model/approach, which includes social learning, knowledge production (including spatial knowledge), participatory engagement and technical methods (models, guidelines, indicators, procedures) necessary to achieve a paradigm shift to transform society, and the economy towards a healthy relationship with the ecological infrastructure within the catchment: i.e. to change the socio-ecological relations in the catchment to ensure greater resilience through the development of a transformative governance approach
  7. Describe the catchment connectivity from both bio-physical and social aspects that are core in understanding drivers of the catchment processes and characteristics.
  8. Recommend further research on the social and ecological interface critical to improve natural resources governance at the catchment scale

Outcome and expected impacts:


Society: The equitable and efficient sharing of benefits from aquatic ecosystem services is central to achieving societal equity and well-being within a river basin. This programme will develop mechanisms for benefit sharing at the river-basin scale. It supports the intention of Chapter 5 of the National Development Plan, which highlights the importance of ecosystem services and their relevance to national development, as does Outcome 10 of the Presidential outcomes.

Economy: Economies within river basins are invariably dependent on the water yield generated within that river basin from both water quality and quantity perspectives. The programme will assist us to understand better the linkages between aquatic ecosystem services, water yield and social and economic development at the scale of a river basin.

Health: Human health within a river basin is invariably linked, both directly and indirectly, to the availability of water and thequality of that water. The availability and quality of that water are regularly determined by the integrity of aquatic ecosystem services supplying the benefit. This programme will allow us to better understand and respond to issues related to aquatic ecosystem service provision and human health, particularly of those reliant on water resources obtained directly from river systems and associated outfall areas. Furthermore, different uses of water and linked exposure, transmission routes and variability in chemical and microbiological quality will be investigated and guidelines for stakeholders provided.

Environment: This programme will demonstrate the centrality of aquatic ecosystem services in facilitating the delivery of social and economic development at the river basin scale. It will explore the multiple relations that constitute the socio-ecological system of the UMngeni Catchment and how these relations provide opportunities for meeting the goals of the green economy. These include improving quality of life and social equity through the protection and enhancement of the Umngeni Catchment and the goods and services it provides, hence reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities (UNEP, 2011).


Relevant Publications and reports

Journal Papers


Conference Papers and Presentations

Reports and other