Reviving the Legacy: By Reigniting Groundwater Mentorship Programs in South Africa.

OPINION by Yazeed van Wyk and Jonathan Chaim Levin

In South Africa, responsible management of groundwater resources is essentially an issue of ensuring water security.
       We know that groundwater constitutes between 13% and 16% (excluding boreholes not registered at the Department of Water and Sanitation) of the country's water supply and around 56% of South Africa's population rely on groundwater as either their sole source or in conjunction with surface water resources. In many rural areas across the country, groundwater typically serves as the sole water resource, yet the lack of skilled hydrogeologists in local municipalities poses significant challenges.
This is in light of climate change, over abstraction linked to land subsidence, pollution, maintenance and operation of broken infrastructure and inadequate monitoring. To tackle these issues, it is necessary to focus on targeted mentoring programs specifically designed for sustainable groundwater management. It seems to be forgotten that behind every successful Hydrogeologist there are mentors that have played an instrumental role in illuminating the path for our current success. Groundwater mentoring programs bring together experienced professionals with aspiring hydrogeologists creating a platform for knowledge sharing and enhancing skills development.
South Africa boasts an incredible track record for producing some of the best hydrogeologists in the world. The exceptional quality of training can be attributed to the challenging geological environments (fractured and highly heterogenous aquifer settings) they encounter, which are among the most intricate and diverse in the world. It therefore comes as no surprise that South African hydrogeologists have developed a remarkable skill set that is highly sought after internationally. But for how long will this last? The 21st century environment that we are operating in is so fast fast-paced and results-driven, that the fear of failure has almost become a deterrent to taking risks and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. The pressure to deliver immediate and flawless outcomes has to a large extent eclipsed the significance of the learning process.
        Reflecting on my earlier days as a junior hydrogeologist mentorship played a central role in our professional development. It was not merely a formality but a crucial Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for the organisation. Mentors provided guidance, support and most importantly, the freedom to learn from our mistakes. This failure was not frowned upon but rather embraced as an opportunity for growth. Our mentors or at least mine understood that facing challenges and making mistakes were inherent to the learning process. We were encouraged to take risks and push boundaries to come up with innovative solutions and even though success was celebrated, it was the lessons learned from those failures that left the most indelible mark on my professional journey as a hydrogeologist. Unfortunately, gone are the days of the “trial and error” approach to learning that seems to have waned in recent times and gave birth to a more risk-averse and cautious approach leaving less room for growth and innovation. We need to strive as a collective and re-create that enabling environment where knowledge and information can flow freely and bridge the generational gap between hydrogeologists. Furthermore, empower millennials to have open dialogue, seek advice, ask questions, and engage in discussions about cutting-edge research and best practices.

"We need to strive as a collective and re-create that enabling environment where knowledge and information can flow freely and bridge the generational gap between hydrogeologists."

        However, the alarming issue lies in the lack of absorption of these talented individuals into the domestic workforce. We find that NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), municipalities, and many other organisations may choose to outsource hydrogeological skills and expertise instead of employing hydrogeologists in-house. These highly skilled unemployed or underemployed graduates are not actively contributing to the workforce and presents a concerning situation in that they either just take jobs to earn income in fields unrelated to their profession, are underpaid (below the stipulated minimum wage) but more recently and we see this a lot simply leave the country. To address the employment challenges, the job market should consider research-based qualifications at the Masters and PhD levels as relevant work experience for entry-level positions. Graduates with such qualifications possess necessary skills and expertise to perform duties at a junior level. While internships and graduate programs are useful strategies to tackle graduate unemployment, they offer only temporary solutions. Organizations and government sectors should provide opportunities for graduates to gain experience with the intention of absorbing them if they meet program requirements. This approach will minimize graduate unemployment and prevent the loss of skilled individuals to other countries.
        Each year, approximately 250,000 fresh graduates (from both public and private universities) enter the South African labor market, with only 30% finding employment. Another crucial issue we seem to be overlooking is that other sectors of the economy, including energy, logistics, transport, and water, rely heavily on a steady influx of skilled artisans. Based on government's ambitious targets outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP) and White Paper for Post-School Education and Training, South Africa is still facing challenges in achieving its goal of producing 35,000 qualified artisans annually by 2030. Despite having over 400 Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, progress has been slower than anticipated since the NDP's implementation in 2012, with only 43% of the target achieved so far. This directly impacts the groundwater sector as we see with inadequate maintenance and repair of groundwater infrastructure, inefficient use of groundwater resources, and the limited capacity to address emerging water-related issues. In the context of artisans and the surplus of qualified professionals in South Africa, the issue of a lack of mentorship becomes even more critical, including hydrogeologists.
An important impediment to progress is that the knowledge from research and experience is not being converted into understandable actionable information. Often, traditional skills are passed down through generations, but without proper documentation and effective mentorship, the nuances and techniques may not be adequately conveyed to the next generation.
        The Water Research Commission's unwavering support in empowering the new generation of water researchers and hydrogeologists in South Africa gains even more significance as the government faces the challenge of retaining these skilled individuals from seeking opportunities abroad. By providing financial backing coupled with practical and relevant workplace-based training through WRC-funded research projects, the WRC not only equips students with essential expertise by allowing them to serve on reference groups and reviewing research proposals exposing them to high level science but also nurtures their passion for addressing the nation's water challenges. However, to maximize the impact of these efforts, government must find effective means to leverage these valuable skills and knowledge within the country. By creating attractive career opportunities, offering competitive incentives, and fostering an environment that values water research and hydrogeology, the government can encourage these skilled professionals to stay and contribute their expertise to the sustainable development of South Africa's water resources. Organizations responsible for providing drinking water to the public should undergo audits to ensure compliance in terms of employing skilled hydrogeologists to manage groundwater, and the same applies to drilling companies.

The entire hydrogeological community of practice in South Africa must view mentorship and skills building as a call to action. Recognising the importance of Mandela Day presents a unique opportunity for the water industry to take decisive action. In fact, I firmly believe that it should be every mentee's right to access mentorship opportunities. By utilising this day and continuing efforts, South Africa can revitalize groundwater mentorship programs, foster talent, and tackle the nation's water challenges with expertise and determination.


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