College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Water Research Magazine Profiles Head of UKZN’s Pollution Research Group

The March/April edition of the Water Research Commission’s (WRC) Water Wheel magazine features the Head of UKZN’s Pollution Research Group (PRG) Professor Chris Buckley, identifying him as a “water personality” and recognising his more than three decades of leadership in water conservation and pollution research.

Buckley, in partnership with Ms Susan Mercer, leads the PRG’s drive to change the face of sanitation in South Africa and beyond, spearheading the group’s involvement in water-saving, resourceful, innovative, and environmentally-friendly sanitation solutions, particularly for poorer communities.

The Water Wheel is a bi-monthly magazine on water and water research.

With a “knack for numbers”, Buckley attended Westville Boys’ High School before studying Chemical Engineering at the then University of Natal in Durban with a student loan from the Durban Corporation. His fourth-year project involved investigating ways to reduce the volume of industrial dyes in textile effluent, while his MScEng focused on the filtration of sewage sludge and he began a PhD on the filtration of compressible sludges.

Buckley paid back his student loan through vacation work for the municipality in various departments, enlightening him about rarely-seen parts of the city as he collected and delivered water samples for analysis.

True to his philosophy of practicing what he preaches, he installed a toilet design at his home over a decade ago to separate waste and capture it for transformation into other resources.

Over the course of his career, Buckley has supervised more than 100 postgraduate students, and, now aged 70, continues to train a new generation of scientists and researchers.

The PRG, located in the basement of the Chemical Engineering building on the Howard College campus, was first conceptualised in the 1970s and from a handful of staff it has grown to its present complement of about 35.

Buckley, who has led the group since 1985, was appointed full-time in 1987.

The PRG adopted a progressive approach to waste solutions before it was popular in academic quarters and its members are now the resident experts for waste, testing and innovative sanitation solutions. The initial focus of the PRG was on reducing water pollution, and production and energy costs for industries including textiles, metal finishing and processing, mining, petrochemicals, sugar, beverages and power plants. While these are still of interest to the PRG, over the last 10 years the focus has shifted towards addressing sanitation challenges, particularly through supporting the development and testing of innovative “reinvented toilets”.

The PRG began working with the eThekwini Municipality in the mid-1990s on solutions including an anaerobic baffle reactor, ventilated pit latrines and urine diversion toilets. With the municipality, they also established the Newlands Mashu Agro-Ecology Hub to test the use of human waste in the development of fertilisers for crop trials.

The recipient of a number of grants and connected to a large national and international network, the PRG has relied on the WRC’s consistent support to sustain its activities and enable it to pursue a long-term vision. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is another key funder – Bill Gates visited Durban in 2004, meeting with Buckley and municipal officials and going on to visit several sites and examine innovative sanitation solutions.

Buckley described how modern engineering solutions can reduce each toilet flush from 10 litres of water to 1.5 litres, a solution especially necessary in water-scarce countries such as South Africa.

The PRG has tested almost 20 toilet prototypes as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, and work at several field sites is ongoing to test new designs and techniques, including communal toilet blocks in informal settlements.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied