24 April 2023 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Leonie Bolleurs
Dr Nacelle Collins
Dr Nacelle Collins received his PhD at the April graduation ceremonies in the Department of Geography. The results of his study have already been adopted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) as the national standard for wetland mapping in South Africa.

Wetlands are important, because they help to address many spatial challenges faced by humanity, including climate change, water security, and the right to a safe environment.

Dr Nacelle Collins, Research Fellow in the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State (UFS), believes that with climate change, water security, and the basic human right to have an environment that is not harmful to our health, humanity is facing more challenges than ever before. 

He is of the opinion that wetlands have an impact on all of these challenges. 

Research results benefit wetland rehabilitation and disaster risk reduction

Dr Collins received his second PhD – this time around in the Department of Geography, which awarded four PhDs on the UFS Bloemfontein Campus and two PhDs on the university’s Qwaqwa Campus at this year’s April graduations ceremonies. 

He is the first recipient of the PhD in Geography majoring in Geoinformatics at the university – a discipline where scientists are using advanced technologies, such as remote sensing, to interpret geospatial data.

Dr Collins believes that with a PhD in Geoinformatics, new insights can be obtained for solving earth-related problems using geospatial information. Scientists with this qualification also gain a unique perspective of the earth, viewing it through the lens of geospatial data.

His PhD, titled: An alternative approach for large-scale wetland mapping in South Africa, investigates the possibility of finding an alternative way to multispectral imagery (images created by detecting frequencies including and other than what our eyes can see) for mapping wetlands; one that will be able to rapidly and accurately map wetland extent over large regions using the minimum amount of freely available data, and requiring the minimal technical skills. 

The results of his study have already been adopted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) as the national standard for wetland mapping in South Africa. 

“Using my results will inform a number of projects and programmes, such as wetland rehabilitation (which contributes towards job creation), while also enabling us to identify wetlands that are most important for water purification, water supply, and erosion control. The information will also inform other disciplines that are concerned with our well-being, such as disaster risk reduction policies and strategies,” says Dr Collins.

Identifying the need for an alternative wetland mapping approach

“The use of multispectral imagery is also costly and requires significant technical skills,” he says.

As a wetland ecologist with the Free State Department of Economic, Small Business Development, Tourism, and Environmental Affairs, Dr Collins is responsible for the development and implementation of a conservation and management strategy for the wetlands of the Free State.

He says the strategy cannot be compiled without an accurate wetland map. “The poor quality of the national wetland map was preventing me from achieving this objective.” According to him, the most recent wetland map of South Africa (National Wetland Map 5) is considered to be of too low accuracy to be used with confidence at national level.

Dr Collins decided to explore alternative mapping approaches, hoping for comparable or superior results to the current multispectral approach.

Enjoying the challenge of having a problem and then devising a solution, he – after finding promising results in his initial investigations – decided to pursue this objective of finding alternatives to multispectral imagery. To add credibility to the results, he also registered for a PhD, which provided him with access to electronic journals and gaining input from other experts in the field.

His end goal, however, is to develop a wetland management system that can be applied not only to the wetlands of the Free State, but of South Africa. “To manage wetlands effectively and efficiently, we must be able to assess and prioritise them for a range of different objectives and values. Achieving this objective requires multiple data inputs, of which my study addresses only one. The next few years will be dedicated to researching, advancing, and developing the other required datasets, such as quantifying wetland diversity, condition, and values,” remarks Dr Collins.

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