Wits tackles water crisis through new research programme

The Claude Leon Foundation will fund two research chairs and a research programme in water stewardship worth R15.7 million.

The impact of humans on Earth’s life-giving systems is mounting, yet the dire consequences will not affect all people equally. In South Africa – a microcosm of the dynamics of planetary and social imbalance – warnings abound regarding urgent environmental issues, and their disproportionate effect on people living in one of the most unequal countries in the world.


Access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water is a human right but water is necessary for all life on Earth. A myriad of anthropogenic pressures threatens the availability of this precious resource at the same time as the impacts of climate change are already being felt and will become more severe. An urgent and comprehensive response is required to secure our immediate future and to safeguard the future of life on Earth.


Research Chairs

The programme sits at the intersection of the work of two Research Chairs

Professor Tracy-Lynn Field (Mandela Institute, School of Law) will hold the Chair in Earth Justice and Stewardship and Professor Craig Sheridan (School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies) will hold the Chair in Water Research. Both Chairs will also be given honorary staff appointments at the University of Edinburgh.


Wits University is at the forefront of water research and development in South Africa and will work with the University of the Western Cape and the University of Edinburgh in the UK to establish the Claude Leon Foundation Water Stewardship Programme to address some of the water issues facing the country. This is a Wits Centenary programme that will benefit society and advance the public good. The Claude Leon Foundation will fund the Water Stewardship Programme including two Research Chairs, for five years at a cost of R15.7 million.



William (Bill) Frankel OBE, Chairperson of the Claude Leon Foundation explains why the Foundation supports the Water Stewardship programme: “Issues relating to the environment and to water are crucial to South Africa and the rest of the world. I am delighted that the Claude Leon Foundation will be partnering Wits University in this important area of research which will also include involvement with the University of Edinburgh and the University of the Western Cape. We are proud that the new Research Chairs at Wits will not only serve as academic research chairs but will also be involved in addressing issues of inequality and social justice in relation to water.”


Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal says: “We live in a world characterised by urbanisation, industrialisation, burgeoning populations, globalisation, pollution, and climate change. All of these present myriad, complex, interconnected problems that affect societies already burdened with inequality, poverty and dwindling natural resources.

“These challenges require inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary solutions that traverse the natural, technical and social spheres, and universities are well-placed to tackle these challenges.” 

Vilakazi adds: “Wits is honoured that the Claude Leon Foundation is the funding partner for this project. This is not only because the Claude Leon Foundation continues to make an outstanding contribution to education, human rights, and a just society, but also because of the long association with Wits of so many individuals associated with the Foundation, whether that be the late Claude Leon himself, or the current Chair of the Foundation, William (Bill) Frankel OBE, or so many of the Foundation’s Trustees. Especially at this time when Wits will be celebrating its centenary in 2022, Wits is proud to partner with the Foundation and to make this initiative a Wits Centenary project.”


Professor James Smith, Vice-Principal International of the University of Edinburgh says: "The University of Edinburgh is delighted to partner with Wits to support two interconnected areas of research that are so crucial to the future of our world. When it comes to access to climate justice and vital resources like water, two of the major challenges facing much of the continent of Africa, it is critical we work closely with researchers working in those contexts, who can contribute to our understanding and with whom we can work together to make positive changes to communities. We are grateful for the support of the Claude Leon Foundation to realise the potential of this particular collaboration, as Wits and Edinburgh continue to build our partnership together across a number of areas."


The Environmental and Nano Science group, Department of Chemistry which is headed by Professor Leslie Petrik at the University of the Western Cape, specialises in waste water treatment and water quality monitoring. Current projects focus on advanced oxidation for degradation of persistent organic pollutants in waste water, and understanding the impacts of sewage effluents on the  environment.  Nanomaterials in development include metal selective ligands and high capacity adsorbents for recovery of valuable metals or removal of toxic metals from mining effluents. 

"We work toward safe and bountiful water as a legacy for future generations, but this is only possible if we protect and steward our current water resources," says Petrik.