Centre for Environmental Management

UFS strip research

The Centre for Environmental Management (CEM) provides a platform for students to obtain postgraduate degrees in Environmental Management, Integrated Water Resource Management, or a diploma in Integrated Water Resource Management as part-time courses while being able to continue in full-time employment. CEM provides education and training, conducts applied research, offers interlinked expert services, and draws on each other through collaboration to promote best environmental and water management practices. CEM applies a multidisciplinary approach to developing postgraduate students' competencies across Africa. The number and diversity of students CEM has attracted over the years is a testament to the successful way the courses are run and the value it offers to the marketplace.

Discover a world of opportunity at the Centre for Environmental Management (CEM), where postgraduate degrees and diplomas in Environmental Management and Integrated Water Resource Management are available as part-time courses. Designed with the working professional in mind, CEM's flexible study options make it possible to earn a degree while maintaining full-time employment.

CEM's multidisciplinary approach to education ensures that postgraduate students from across Africa receive the most comprehensive and practical training possible. With a diverse student body that continues to grow year after year, CEM's success is a testament to the quality of its courses and the value they provide to the marketplace.

The CEM program goes beyond teaching students environmental and integrated water management - it empowers them to become leaders in the field. As a leader in environmental and water management education, CEM not only provides education and training but also conducts applied and post-normal research and offers expert services. These interlinked services draw on each other through collaboration to promote best practices in environmental and water management, making CEM a valuable partner for individuals and organisations alike.

Key achievements:

The EEIA is a recently acquired scholarly organisation in the form of an Institute adopted at the University of the Free State that will assist in education activities, and student development, enhance collaboration and increase knowledge transfer across all 54 African countries and beyond. The board members of the EEIA are comprised of established international researchers from Egypt, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Greece, Ghana, South Africa, and also from the United States of America. A significant co-founder of this Institute and also a Board member include Professor William Mitsch. The EEIA also has country chapters connecting all 54 African countries.

Professor William Mitsch is a world-renowned environmental scientist and ecological engineer who has made significant contributions to the fields of wetland ecology and ecosystem regeneration. He has published over 500 scientific papers and 18 books on these topics, and his research has been cited over 40,000 times. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of Wetland Scientists and has received numerous awards for his contributions to science and the environment, including the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize. Professor Mitsch is currently the Director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he has been a professor since 2012. Before that, he was the Director of the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park at Ohio State University for over 20 years. He has also held faculty positions at the University of Louisville, the University of Florida, and the University of Georgia. Throughout his career, Professor Mitsch has been a champion for wetland conservation and restoration, and his work has had a profound impact on the field of ecology and ecological engineering. His research has helped inform policies and management practices worldwide, and his contributions have been instrumental in protecting and preserving wetlands and other important ecosystems for future generations.

The EEIA, with global influence, will also provide greater scope for inter, multi and transdisciplinary research that will bring together emerging and established academic researchers for collaborative research across South Africa, Africa, and on a global level towards advancing planetary health through ecological engineering-based research, and thus catapulting the UFSs Vision 130. The entity will support the CEM activities, provide greater flexibility in responding to external research and funding opportunities, and enhance the teaching-research nexus. The entity will also support the CEM in establishing more significant opportunities for establishing new and innovative fields of inquiry, which could later become institutionalised in typical academic departments, such as the combination of artificial intelligence and ecological engineering.

The EEIA will strengthen existing and new national and international collaborations to enhance, strengthen, and develop research and knowledge in ecological engineering. The EEIA will support the University's research strategy and ignite excellence through its multidisciplinary nature and interdisciplinary partnerships.

Integrating water resource management and environmental preservation poses a significant challenge in South Africa, resulting in water security concerns and increased pollution risks. To combat these pressing issues, a ground-breaking solution has emerged through the pioneering work of the CEM. Through Professor Paul Oberholster's innovative approach and leadership, centred around ecological engineering, it is set to transform domestic wastewater treatment and revolutionise the country's water infrastructure.

Traditional wastewater treatment methods in South Africa have struggled to address the growing discharge of pollutants into rivers due to infrastructure deterioration, institutional capacity limitations, and increased hydraulic loads. These challenges have raised concerns about heavy metals, emerging contaminants, and forever chemicals, posing environmental and public health risks. To address these critical issues, the CEM has introduced a range of natural-based solutions, including phycoremediation, phytoremediation, and microbial bioremediation.

Phycoremediation, a cutting-edge biological clean-up technology, harnesses the power of indigenous micro or macro algae to remove contaminants from wastewater effluents. By utilising nutrient enrichment, phycoremediation effectively transforms pollutants such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphates, and salts into benign substances. The process offers multiple advantages, including tackling various pollutants simultaneously, creating commercially beneficial compounds, sequestering CO2, and producing biohydrogen. Additionally, phycoremediation is a cost-effective and resilient process that can accommodate varying substance quantities and consistency.

Microbial bioremediation, another pioneering technique, utilises microorganisms to naturally break down and degrade soil, water, and air pollutants. By leveraging the natural metabolic processes of microorganisms, microbial bioremediation reduces harmful substances to non-toxic or less toxic forms. This environmentally friendly method has successfully cleaned up contaminated sites, including industrial areas, agricultural fields, disaster-struck areas, and wastewater treatment plants.

Implementing these ecological engineering solutions offers transformative opportunities for small to medium-sized wastewater treatment works in South Africa. By incorporating these technologies, local communities can enhance treatment capacity, create employment opportunities, and recycle materials while benefiting from cost-effective and environmentally conscious solutions. Notably, upgrading existing treatment works becomes feasible, reducing the need for significant infrastructure investments.

The CEM is leading the way in domestic water treatment technology innovation, focusing on optimising ecological engineered systems for industrial wastewater treatment in agriculture and material production sectors. The CEM has already demonstrated its efficacy and potential by piloting these advanced treatment technologies in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. Further research and capacity-building efforts in South Africa will enable the widespread implementation of these solutions and address the unique challenges small and medium municipalities face.

The CEM's work aligns seamlessly with the country's commitment to sustainable development and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 6, which aims to ensure universal access to clean water and sanitation. By integrating ecological engineering solutions like phycoremediation into public sector service delivery efforts, the CEM is driving positive change, improving the quality of life for South African communities, and protecting precious water resources.

South Africa's mining and manufacturing activities have left a lasting impact on water quality, with acid mine drainage (AMD) from both abandoned and active mines posing a significant threat to our precious water resources. AMD carries high concentrations of heavy metals and other contaminants, wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems and jeopardising human health. In addition, the manufacturing sector contributes to water pollution by discharging effluent-containing pollutants such as heavy metals, organic compounds, and nutrients. While regulatory measures have been implemented, enforcement challenges and resource limitations continue to hinder effective water pollution management in these sectors.

Amidst these challenges, the CEM has emerged as a leader in tackling water pollution through ground-breaking research and innovative solutions. In a milestone achievement, the research team reinstated the ecological functions of a natural wetland system through ecological engineering in the Mpumalanga province, explicitly enhancing the natural wetland system to treat acid mine water from coal mining activities. This pioneering project addresses water pollution and incorporates a socio-economic component, aiming to internalise the costs of ecosystem services impacted by mining activities and develop a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis (CBA) tool that encompasses financial and environmental factors.

The Zaalklapspruit ecologically engineered wetland treatment system is a testament to this approach's remarkable potential. The system's water purification and waste assimilation services alone hold a value ranging between R20,000 and R85,000 per hectare per annum, or a staggering R2.6 to R11.4 million annually. These ecosystem services directly contribute to the wetland's inherent 'asset' value, often called "ecological infrastructure." Based on estimations, the Zaalklapspruit wetland treatment system boasts an asset value between R501 and R763 million per year, with the water purification and waste assimilation service accounting for R130 to R560 million annually.

We have achieved remarkable returns by investing a mere R1.7 million in constructing the Zaalklapspruit wetland passive treatment system, generating between R130 and R560 million on South Africa's natural asset balance sheet. This achievement is even more remarkable because the ecologically engineered passive treatment system operates without electricity and produces no harmful by-products. It exemplifies a sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to water treatment.

However, further capacity-building initiatives and additional research are imperative to advance these ecologically engineered wetland systems. The CEM will spearhead these efforts, addressing the need for human capacity development and optimising ecologically engineered systems for passive treatment of mine wastewater in other mining sectors, such as gold and platinum, and the agriculture industry.

The CEM's ground-breaking work in acid-mine drainage and alkaline water treatment marks a significant step forward in the battle against water pollution in South Africa. Their research and innovation pave the way for sustainable water management practices that protect our environment, preserve our natural resources, and foster a healthier future for all.

The CEM is taking a ground-breaking step towards sustainability by developing the continent's first biodiversity credit system. The current process of valuing and measuring the impact of ecological engineering initiatives has posed significant challenges, hindering the comparison of costs and benefits across different projects and limiting assessments on a broader scale. Inconsistency and lack of standardisation have made it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of these projects in achieving sustainable outcomes. However, a new integrated approach called the Ecological Engineering Nexus Accounting Framework (EENAF) is set to revolutionise the field.

Ecological engineering projects are intricate social-ecological systems that demand a holistic nexus approach, integrating ecological, social, and economic dimensions to evaluate their impact on the broader landscape and comprehensively assess their social, environmental, and economic implications. In response to these challenges, the EENAF methodology has been applied to three types of nature-based solutions as ecological engineering approaches in South Africa. This innovative framework encompasses a new typology for nature-based systems in ecological engineering alongside a supporting multi-scale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism (MUSIASEM) bio-economic valuation, an ecological engineering economics application.

The EENAF framework offers a systematic way to assess the impact of ecological engineering projects on the environment, society, and economy. Standardised metrics such as the gross ecosystem product (GEP), industry value added linked to ecosystem services, monetary ecosystem asset value, and the cost of degradation provide valuable tools for measuring and valuing the impact of these projects. By integrating economic and ecological considerations, ecological engineering economics ensures that projects are sustainable, economically viable, and socially acceptable, contributing to the goal of planetary health and bridging the current gap in ecological and environmental economics within the green economy, specifically in the ecological engineering project lifecycle.

The significance of the research lies in developing the EENAF framework and the potential future application of its methodology in creating financial instruments for funding ecological engineering-related projects and initiatives. The framework has the power to foster a sustainable future by providing a standardised approach to assessing and valuing the impact of ecological engineering, considering the coupling and interconnectivity of social-ecological systems. This, in turn, leads to informed decision-making and improved environmental and social outcomes. Using EENAF to develop a financial instrument ensures that funding is directed toward sustainable projects that significantly benefit society and the environment.

The advent of Africa's first biodiversity credit system marks a monumental step forward in advancing sustainability practices. By leveraging the power of the EENAF framework, Africa is poised to unlock new opportunities for funding and directing resources toward projects that generate substantial social and environmental benefits. This pioneering initiative will shape the future of ecological engineering and contribute to a more sustainable and resilient future for Africa and the world. 


South Africa and Australia, both arid countries with historical ties to the British Empire, face significant water management challenges. Despite common legal and parliamentary systems, the two nations diverge in their approaches to water sector governance, leading to markedly different outcomes in economic prosperity.

In examining the disparities, it becomes evident that contemporary South Africa is grappling with a scenario resembling a failed state, particularly evident in the breakdown of the electricity and water services sector. This raises a fundamental question – why is the South African water sector faltering while its Australian counterpart thrives? 

Why is the South African water sector collapsing?

Addressing the collapse of the South African water sector requires a nuanced understanding rooted in historical context. The origins of the issue can be traced back to the British Empire’s consideration of federalism during the Anglo-Zulu War. While federalism found success in Canada and Australia, it failed to take root in South Africa.

Fast forward to the present, South Africa operates as a unitary state with a centralised water policy and national water law. This uniform approach leaves little room for local variation, resulting in a cookie-cutter model applied nationwide. Despite water being a constitutional right and given that free basic water is guaranteed to all, the sector faces challenges such as high levels of unaccounted-for water, leakages, and poor management. The absence of justiciable water rights and the separation of water from land ownership hinder private sector involvement. Consequently, utilities are reliant on government bailouts, a situation exacerbated by failing water and electricity grids, diminishing the tax base, and escalating unemployment. 

Australia’s flourishing water sector: A model of innovation 

Australia’s federal structure facilitates a diverse array of state policies and laws, promoting adaptability to local conditions. Boasting over 30 distinct water authorities, each tailored to meet local needs, Australia thrives on a justiciable water right system that allows private ownership. Market forces drive water to its most productive use, and investor confidence is a cornerstone in decision-making. 

Australia’s innovative and market-oriented approach has resulted in well-managed utilities with robust balance sheets. The ability to raise capital from the bond market reduces reliance on public funds for bailouts. Groundwater plays a vital role, accounting for around 40% of the total resource, while innovative technologies, such as seawater desalination, are embraced at the utility scale.   

South Africa’s water sector: uninvestable and facing challenges 

Contrastingly, South Africa’s water sector faces challenges. A lack of innovative approaches, coupled with a rigid, cookie-cutter methodology has stifled local imagination. The state’s hostility towards private capital has rendered the water sector generally uninvestable. While some large water boards still maintain strong balance sheets, the growing debt burden from non-payment by municipalities poses a threat. Limited development of groundwater at utility scale, coupled with a reluctance to replicate successful initiatives, further compounds the challenges. Sea water desalination, where it exists, is confined to small package plants in distressed municipalities along the coast, often seen as unsustainable. 

Australia’s innovative solutions: integrating technology and conservation

Australia stands out for its innovative solutions. With a vibrant private sector driving constant technological advancements, groundwater is a key element in most utilities, actively integrated into the grid and accounting for around 40% of the total resource. Building codes align with water conservation, ensuring rainwater harvesting and aquifer recharge are actively pursued at various levels, including suburb and city. The management of sewage, increasingly sophisticated water recovery from waste, and seawater desalination at utility scale funded by private capital showcase Australia’s forward-thinking approach.  

Centralisation versus decentralisation  

In conclusion, the weakness of South Africa’s water sector lies in the highly centralised approach, resulting in ineffective, one-size-fits-all solutions. Local authorities often lack imagination, relying heavily on taxpayers and hindering innovation. Suspicion towards capital and technology further limits the sectors development. In contrast, Australia’s decentralised approach fosters vibrant water utilities capable of attracting both capital and technology. Entrepreneurs’ initiatives in desalination and water recovery programmes inspire investor confidence, leading to capital influx and secure, water-efficient local economies.
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Contact me

Prof Paul Oberholster
Head of the Centre for Environmental Management
T: +27 51 401 2863
E: cem@ufs.ac.za

Agriculture Building, Block 10

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