Meet Dr Zanele Ntshidi
Women know the value of water. For Dr Zanele Ntshidi, this conviction comes from growing up in a small village called Mtyu near the town of Libode in rural Eastern Cape, where women were leading households and domestic chores, instinctively knowing the full benefit and quality of water needed to maintain healthy bodies.
Carrying her own water and knowing the value of every drop
“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘Once you carry your own water you will know the value of every drop’.” Ntshidi has found this to be very true. For the little Xhosa girl, access to water for household consumption would involve a daily walk of at least five kilometres between her home and the nearest river.
During the rainy season, trips to the nearby river could be placed on pause for up to three months when favourable downpours would be saved in large water tanks and buckets. Eventually these water supplies would become depleted due to the natural demands of home and domestic life. Ntshidi was quick to master adaptation techniques and skills that made her become water-wise. Knowledge of water-related diseases was passed on from the elders. Applying safe solutions to ensure an adequate supply of water would involve techniques such as boiling the water and allowing the water to cool overnight. In retrospect, it appears she was preparing to be a water researcher from a very young age.
“I knew a lot about water even before I enrolled in formal schooling. It was not from books, but from indigenous knowledge systems. I am the youngest of four sisters and daily I would accompany my older sisters – small bucket in hand – when everyone towed to the river to collect water. Later in life, moving to urban areas and towns made one realize the privilege of having water come from a tap,” she says.
Carving out a career caring for water
Ntshidi joined the CSIR as a bursar in 2010 in her second year of undergraduate studies. Her vacation work at the organisation paved her path to meet and work with water researchers on smart water-use projects, specifically on plant water-use, monitoring and modelling projects.
She completed all her academic qualifications at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) – a Bachelor of Science, Honours, Master’s and PhD in environmental and water science. Ntshidi is a certified professional natural scientist registered with the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions and a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, a membership she obtained in 2010 following her academic excellence.
An inherent fascination with nature is what motivated her to study water and environmental sciences. She fondly recalls reading the prospectus at UWC and how it captured her imagination and inspired her to register for the environmental and water science degree offered by the Earth Science department at UWC. While there are other career options with this degree, such as becoming a soil scientist or environmental officer, Ntshidi says she made a conscious choice to become a researcher.
Water conservation in agriculture
In South Africa, the agricultural sector is the highest consumer of water and its water practices are often perceived to be wasteful. Therefore, new technologies to conserve water for agricultural purposes can go a long way to ensuring the sector’s sustainability.
“As a water researcher, it is all about water conservation in the agricultural sector. Working with plants is part of the equation and the scientific research processes. For example, in one project, I collaborate with stakeholders to combat the spread of invasive alien plants that are known to be very ‘thirsty’ in their consumption of precious water sources,” she says.
Women keeping the wells full
Ntshidi says it is important for women to occupy space in water research. In doing fieldwork, undertaking projects and working with the public, experience has shown that women in communities are the most reliable sources of information when it comes to water research because they are the actual managers of water as a resource. These women relate well with female water researchers.
Ntshidi feels positive about working with a women-based team that she is part of. “Women researchers in the CSIR Water Research Centre are spread across its different specialist research groups, where they have earned the reputation of being smart and possessing strong leadership skills. My team is always ready to assist and truly displays the act of women actively uplifting each other. They truly embody the CSIR EPIC values: they are women who excel, are willing to help, have integrity, uphold good ethics and are ready to collaborate at all times. They are also caring individuals,” she says.
Ntshidi observed early on in her career that men outnumber women as water researchers and/or as active participants in the water sector. This did not deter her. “I found the women and the men in our water research teams to be very helpful. I was inspired by the women, especially regarding how they manage to balance their work and life priorities.”
While Ntshidi says women are still under-represented in the water sector, several female researchers lead the implementation of large projects and are building their leadership skills.
Supervising students also generates a special impact because it allows students to see their own potential while they grow as the next generation of aspiring professionals and researchers. Ntshidi thinks about her own development, dating back to her initial entry into the CSIR as a second-year undergraduate student. Ntshidi was assigned a mentor and describes the guidance received as instrumental in shaping her career. “Mentorship can assist women in being connected with experienced professionals during the early stages of their careers and this can create favourable outcomes for their future,” she says.
Our cups run over
Water research is contributing to society in a multitude of positive ways, such as helping in alleviating water challenges in a dry country and adapting to shifting climate and weather patterns, including patterns of lower rainfall in some geographical regions.
The knowledge and information water researchers are generating is helping to strengthen policy and ensuring that entities that are responsible for clearing invasive alien species are empowered to do so. The removal and clearing of these plants enable the water to flow and for it to reach those who need it the most.
“On a personal level, the work I do allows me to be outside and active in the field. I get to interact with farmers and nature. Another perk is extensive local travelling and I am fortunate to discover new places and gain new learnings,” she says.
“I am content in knowing that I am making a difference,” she concludes.