Generating research that safeguards nature while promoting the social and economic development of the country’s people is the focus of the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management (UESM). Located in Potchefstroom, the unit supports the optimal utilisation of natural resources within the limitations of ecosystem resilience. To ensure long-term relevance, the UESM seeks a balance between fundamental and applied, market-oriented research.
Currently our research is conducted in eight subprogrammes: Climate Change, Air Quality and Impacts; Aquatic Ecosystem Health; Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology; Ecological Interactions and Ecosystem Resilience; Environmental Management; Integrated Pest Management; Geology Soil Science, and Spatial Planning and Implementation.
During 2016, 42 researchers from the unit presented their research at international conferences in more than 25 countries, including Belgium, Norway, Canada, Finland, Vietnam, Italy, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Kenya, the UK and the USA. As a result, our researchers were at the forefront of the key environmental issues of the day, contributing problem-solving ideas and novel research.
The international profile of the unit increased markedly through the appointment of nine extraordinary associate and full professors from Australia, France, Belgium, Kenya and the USA.
Nine postdoctoral fellows completed their fellowships at the UESM in 2016 and 10 joined our ranks, bringing the number of postdoctoral fellows to 23. The new postdoctoral fellows represent a good mix of national and international researchers, the latter being from the Czech Republic, Poland and the Ukraine.
The unit still has the highest number of NRF-rated researchers in a single research unit of the NWU. Among the 26 rated researchers are four with B ratings, two of whom improved their rating for the period 2016 to 2021. Prof Kobus Pienaar moved from C2 to B3 and Prof Eddie Ueckermann from B3 to B2.
The UESM had another good year for postgraduate completions, with 50 master’s and 16 PhD students graduating in 2016. For the first time in its history, the unit had more than 350 registered postgraduate students, comprising 268 master’s and 114 PhD students.
Our subsidised publication outputs have been on an upwards curve for the past six years. In 2016 we built on the excellent output of 2015 (87,19 publication units), increasing this by more than 15% to 101,31 units. As a result the average publication unit per full-time academic staff member is more than two publication points. This is more than double the required target of one for members of an NWU research unit.
Partnerships and collaboration
The UESM played an active role in environmental and special planning activities in the local municipality and province. During 2016 a number of our researchers contributed to a special issue published by the Science Publishing Group, entitled Planning for Sustainable Communities: Green-Spaces in Rural Areas. Researchers from our unit, in partnership with the South African Cities Network, also played a significant role in creating a better understanding of planning and land use for the natural and built environment in order to co-exist for community benefit. This was done through the publication of a landmark book published by the South African Cities Network, entitled Planning for Green Infrastructure: Options for South African Cities.
During 2016, the UESM further extended its Master in Environmental Management programme by enrolling the first intake of 10 students for the Master in Environmental Management with specialisation in Environmental Water Requirements programme. This programme was developed in collaboration with the Department of Water and Sanitation and the Water Research Commission, and is the first of its kind in South Africa.
Recognition and awards
Many staff members, postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students from UESM received national or international awards during 2016. They include:
• Prof Calie Schoeman, who received the National Planning Award 2016 from the South African Planning Institute for his contribution to academic research.
• Prof Kobus Pienaar, who received high-level recognition from the Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) Programme of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for his services from 2008 to 2015 to the Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) on Precipitation Chemistry (now named SAG on Total Atmospheric Deposition).
• Marnus Botha, who received the best presentation award at the Young Scientists Towards the Challenges of Modern Technology Conference that took place during September 2016 in Warsaw, Poland.
• Donné van der Westhuizen, who received the best poster award at the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group conference held in Skukuza, Kruger National Park during May 2016.
• Christian Selbach, Natasha Kruger and Roxanne Conradie, who received the Best Veteran Oral Presentation, Best Senior Student Oral Presentation and Best First-time Poster Presentation awards, respectively, at the 45th annual conference of the Parasitological Society of Southern Africa, held during September 2016 in Cape Town.
Members of the UESM participated in a number of community engagement projects. This included hosting a Precision Farming Day where farmers and representatives of organised agriculture were informed about the latest trends in organised agriculture.
The UESM also hosted one of the four South African events in celebration of International Fish Migration Day. The aim of the event was to raise public awareness about the ecological and economic importance of healthy rivers and the close connection between communities and their environment.
Various researchers of the UESM also participated in the SASOL Expo for Young Scientists where they informed scholars about environmental and natural sciences. In addition, the unit’s postdoctoral fellows presented MiniSASS to a number of learners from a variety of primary schools in Potchefstroom. MiniSASS is a simple tool that aspiring young environmental scientists can use to monitor the health of a river, and is an effective way of getting school groups involved in environmental monitoring.