#01 2021

SAEON Grasslands platforms as enablers at the heart of science

By Susan J. van Rensburg, Coordinator, SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node

Applying for a National Research Foundation (NRF) bursary? Thinking of working on SAEON platforms? Be sure to check the box!

The NRF’s Vision 2030 is Research for a better society, where knowledge and research take their place at the epicentre of national development, with a strong call to ensure that the science conducted is impactful. Aligning with this, is SAEON’s strategic vision: World-class environmental research platforms for a sustainable society.

In breathing life into the NRF vision, CEO Dr Molapo Qhobela recently challenged the NRF family to think about how we ensure that we are at ‘the heart of the research enterprise’ in South Africa.

Reflecting on this for the SAEON Grasslands Node, I believe our ‘heart’ is in enabling global change research through providing platforms for multidisciplinary science, promoting the use of these as unique human capital development opportunities for students and facilitating collaborations across diverse disciplines around global change issues affecting society. If our platforms are at the ‘heart’ of the SAEON science enterprise, then the students and collaborators who work on these platforms are the lifeblood.

In a previous issue of SAEON eNews, Dr Joh Henschel – in his article Sky’s the limit – promoted the idea that graduate and postgraduate training ‘should include full exposure to nature through proper fieldwork’. I could not agree more!

Calling all students

SAEON nodes all offer invaluable opportunities for students in this regard. As the NRF moves towards a new bursary system, it is vital that students are made aware of the value and opportunities that SAEON platforms offer. Students should highlight in their application that they want to work on a SAEON site if they want to make use of these platforms.

Having started the Grasslands Node in 2011 from nothing, with a tiny team, we have over the last ten years developed two platforms – the high-altitude Cathedral Peak Catchments platform, the brainchild of former SAEON observation scientist Prof Timothy O’Connor, and later the Maputaland Coastal Plain platform, representing a coastal system.

There is still much work to be done and phenomenal opportunities for impactful science if the resources permit (we still only have a tiny team!) But have we been making a difference at all so far?

Reflecting on this prompted me to ask students and collaborators if they had benefited from our platforms in any way. In sharing some of these responses I hope we ignite even more interest from the student body to work on SAEON platforms. Our intention is to ensure the optimal use of the two SAEON Grasslands Node platforms and be guided by users on how to improve on our value offering.

Responses received from students and collaborators

“My PhD has heavily relied on the platform to be successful, from the technical assistance from Kent and Siphiwe (and Paul in terms of statistics) to the physical assets such as the equipment, vehicles and accommodation for field trips. Beyond this, my project is not solely on the ET and soil moisture data I personally collect in the field, but the long-term data set of rainfall, streamflow and climatological data available to me thanks to the platform. Further, the platform has also let me engage outside my discipline and learn a lot from others, such as ecologists, zoologists and soil scientists. That is one of the most valuable things I have gained from the platform and it has taught me a lot outside of my project.

“During my trips overseas I quickly realised that I rarely find myself in a room of hydrologists, and I was much better prepared and able to engage with the diverse groups I worked with. This is also going to be highly valuable going forward in my career. Thank you for all the assistance and for letting me be a part of the platform!” – Byron Gray, PhD candidate, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)

“SAEON has assisted me with data and resources to pursue my PhD studies. In addition, the people of the Grasslands Node are ever willing to assist you whenever you need help or advice.” – Manish Ramjeawon, PhD candidate, UKZN

“SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node enables students to function as and have a scientist experience in a multidisciplinary setting while still a student, which is something hard to find somewhere else.” – Lindokuhle Dlamini, PhD candidate, University of the Free State

EFTEON PhD student, Lindokuhle Dlamini, downloading his monitoring station where he measures soil respiration as well as take continuous measurements of humidity, air and soil temperature and soil moisture as part of his field work investigating soil restoration and soil carbon in Cathedral Peak

EFTEON PhD student, Manish Ramjeawon, working on land cover change in Maputaland to experience first-hand what his algorithms mean

Value of SAEON data

The ability of postgraduate students to advance their projects (data collection) was severely restricted during 2020 due to Covid-19 regulations. This is particularly so for Honours students whose field work is, under normal circumstances, time constrained in the one-year degree.

Fortunately, SAEON had datasets that were readily available for use by UKZN Honours students, hence their projects could continue although they did miss out on valuable field work experiences. This demonstrates the extremely valuable role SAEON’s long-term platforms and data systems have played in alleviating some of the immediate impacts on university students during the pandemic.

We have also tried to identify opportunities for collecting rare parameter data in some of the less traditional sampled areas and focus on ensuring long-term records from all our sites. An example of this is our high-altitude station at Vultures Retreat. Professor Stephan Grab, who has been an avid supporter of this station, had this to say: “If you can keep Vulture’s Retreat going, I’ll be interested to see what you have in about 30 years from now (I’ll be into my 80s then but hopefully still as keen!). My only gripe with SAEON is that you didn’t start all this 60 years earlier!”

Field schools

The SAEON Grasslands Node also encourages universities to make use of our platforms for field schools. We want to inspire young minds and expose students to the diverse array of disciplines working together that need to find new and innovative ways of doing integrated science to address the global change challenges we face.

It is rewarding to see students ’getting their hands dirty’ and experiencing ’the field’. For many it is the first time they get such exposure. Professor Chris Curtis, head of Geography at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), has for several years used the Cathedral Peak platform for the third-year Geography course and his feedback highlights some of this value:

“The Cathedral Peak research platform provided an amazing opportunity to bring students from an inner-city university into a near pristine grassland, afromontane environment and experience many ‘firsts’ for a majority of them:

  • first time in a mountain environment/Drakensberg – even for most students coming from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN);
  • first time in a protected area for many of them and especially a World Heritage Site as well;
  • first encounter with most of the instrumentation available for environmental/hydrological monitoring and modelling;
  • first opportunity to observe, discuss and learn with ‘government’ (SAEON) field scientists, ecologists and technicians (both in the field and during lecture/discussion sessions) – opening their eyes to study, research and employment opportunities in the environmental and conservation fields;
  • given the location of Wits, a first opportunity to observe and contemplate earth system processes and biogeochemical cycles in a near natural environment, as a context for understanding global change processes and environmental management challenges; and
  • immersive experience of a living laboratory, with catchment-scale experiments and modelling which cannot easily be conveyed in a classroom.

“The feedback I received from students who attended our Cathedral Peak field trips has been extremely positive and I am certain some of their most memorable undergrad experiences – most of the above applies equally to postgrads who worked/studied at Cathedral Peak as well.”

Third-year Geography students from Wits on a field trip to Cathedral Peak in 2019

MSc student Lindiwe Nkabane (right) engaged in field training on survey techniques to determine the level of Lake Sibaya with local community member Vusumusi Zikhali (left) and Des van Rensburg (Department of Water and Sanitation)


The SAEON Grasslands Node has enjoyed hosting several interns. Feedback from them includes:

“This is my first professional job. It was a big challenge and a learning experience. The team helped significantly with how to conduct myself in a professional manner as well as in management, planning and self-development. The internship had become a good starting point for future ambitions. SAEON has considered my needs and my development with projects suited to the interns and acquired useful resources such as esri. The interns leave changed after the internship programme.” – Sachin Doarsamy

“SAEON gave me a platform to learn. I have gained fieldwork and writing skills.” – Xolile Mbuyazi

Maputaland platform

Our Mapatuland platform is also rapidly gaining traction with researchers and students alike, as well as practitioners working on the area in the water space. A region in dire need, SAEON’s growing activities in the area are being designed to have meaningful impact towards a sustainable society and have been built on the back of others working towards similar goals in the region.

As Mark Scarbers from JG AFRIKA notes: “As a groundwater practitioner with some 28 years’ experience in the geohydrology of the Maputaland Coastal Plain, it is very difficult as a consultant to have reams of institutional knowledge which is restricted to individual scopes of work and projects (i.e. very compartmentalised). Who would have thought that organisational disarray and funding ‘restrictions’ at the District Municipality would have resulted in a graph of a series of water-level measurements at 13 boreholes over a nine-year period being the initiator of what today is recognised as a pretty serious drop in water levels across the biggest primary aquifer in South Africa.

“This graph did not work its way to fame on its own, and a series of fortuitous happenings, meetings and timeous focus by the Department (of Water and Sanitation) realised a massive need for intervention. This still did not solve the problem. A champion was needed, and one found in SAEON. Passionate, committed and dedicated for the overall ecological, social and environmental improvement for the people of and visitors to uMhlabuyalingana, SAEON’s Grasslands Node coordinator has taken up the challenge to create a more holistic and enabling environment for long-term global change research in the region.”

Socio-economic impact

It is not an easy task to measure the realised socioeconomic impact of our science work. Its value chain takes many lines but, at the most fundamental level, it lies in transferring knowledge to decision-makers to empower them to make decisions around wise land management, resource use and water stewardship to ensure the natural services gained from healthy ecosystems, such as water, can be maintained.

A more direct socioeconomic benefit is that, wherever possible, we employ people from the local community to assist with field work in both the Cathedral Peak and Maputaland Coastal Plain LTER sites. We use these opportunities for science engagement, to explain our programmes to those we employ, talk about climate change science and the reason behind the measurements we are taking.

Where possible, we get local community members involved in routine checking of instruments (for security) and taking measurements. Over the past year a total of 45 local community members in rural areas benefited from employment by the Grasslands Node (21 at the Maputaland Coastal Plain site and 24 in Cathedral Peak). An immeasurable benefit of this is that in some cases the people we employ have not had the opportunity to go into the protected areas that exist close to where they live.

Inspiration, discovery and solutions

For me personally the most rewarding times are those spent in the field introducing new students and collaborators to the field, challenging them to look with the eyes, feel with their hands and think deeply about what they are seeing. Inspiration, discovery and solutions come from first-hand encounters and taking the time to delve deeply into the systems being observed.

One needs to understand context if you want to have impact.

I am concerned about the pace at which we are living our lives, the competitive nature of science and being permanently plugged into electronic devices, search engines and R code. If we want to have societal impact, perhaps we need to advocate for a ‘slow science’ movement.

Working collaboratively rather than competitively, spanning across disciplines and including industry and communities in the science process takes more time, but is more rewarding and likely to lead to better traction where scientific outcomes are enriched by a deeper understanding of local context.

If this sounds like something you are interested in, do get in touch.