The first three year phase of the joint research partnership between UKZN and EPCPD, called the UKZN Sandstone Sourveld Research Programme, concluded in July 2014. The Programme focused on environmental management, specifically biodiversity conservation within KZN Sandstone Sourveld, in the face of global environmental changes that include the impacts of a changing climate. KZN Sandstone Sourveld is currently classified as critically endangered and endangered by EKZNW and SANBI, respectively. Its distribution is entirely within KZN extending from Kranskop near the uMvoti River in the north to the Mtwalume River in the south.

In the eThekwini Municipal Area, this ecosystem is found in isolated localities between iNanda Mountain and uMbumbulu. Scientists estimate that within the eThekwini Municipality, approximately 73% of this vegetation has already been lost through transformation for agriculture and development, with only 0.2% being under formal protection within the province of KwaZulu-Natal. This veld type has a high species richness, especially forbs, and high rates of endemism (e.g. Berkheya umbellate, a forb species endemic to KZN) coupled with vital ecosystem services (e.g. a source of medicinal plants, ground water recharge and storm water attenuation).

To successfully conserve this ecosystem type, it is critically important that an understanding of suitable management practices are developed and then implemented. UKZN Researchers are carrying out a wide range of studies within KZN Sandstone Sourveld; this includes research into invertebrate genetic diversity using novel techniques like DNA barcoding. They are also investigating the impacts of development pressure, how neighbouring communities can sustainability benefit from these grasslands in terms of the ecosystem services that they provide and their economic value.

Following the success and achievements of the KZNSS programme, a Reforestation Research (RR) programme was initiated in 2014. This was directly linked to the successful receipt of grant funds by the EPCPD, from the National Green Fund. The RR programme set out to deliver research focused on the local forest restoration projects already underway in the eThekwini Municipal Area (EMA). Importantly, while the key focus was reforestation, a broad range of disciplines was included, in order to ensure a holistic research approach. One area of interest was to understand how local communities and ecosystems might benefit from forest restoration, in terms of increased resilience to climate change. This research was carried out at the Buffelsdraai Community Reforestation Project, where an indigenous forest is being restored within the 800 ha buffer zone of the Buffelsdraai Landfill Site (near Verulam).

While it is well known that people benefit from biodiversity and natural ecosystem services, it’s not yet clear to what extent forest restoration projects can minimise climate change related risks, within local communities. One study has clearly demonstrated the socio-economic benefits to local people who grow and trade trees to the project. Such knowledge is important before similar projects can be established in other parts of the city. Any improved understanding of reforestation related benefits must then yield better climate change related considerations, decision making, and policies. A total of 15 UKZN students (13 MSc and 2 PhD) were involved in research topics ranging from reforestation planning to socio-economic dynamics, to the optimising ecological and biodiversity outcomes, to climate change-related considerations. Many of the results of these studies will only be available once students have completed their research. The broad range of disciplines and trans-disciplinary research approach has allowed students to gain experience in working in a collaborative way. It has also promoted research across different disciplines and institutional boundaries. Such partnerships are considered critical for bridging the science, policy, management and governance gaps inherent within the Municipality’s structures.

The development of research partnerships between local governments and their academic institutions represents a win-win situation where the power of research institutions can be harnessed to develop both capacity and knowledge that is useful to the local government, and in this case, is being used to generate knowledge to combat the impacts of climate change within an ecosystem based adaptation framework.

Phase Two, the Global Environmental Change Research Programme was a second three-year phase of the research programme that was initiated following a municipal procurement process. A key focus of the new phase is to provide information products that will help guide the implementation of the Biodiversity Theme of the Durban Climate Change Strategy. UKZN will contribute substantially to this research programme with a number of biodiversity-focussed research projects. Work is in progress to set up a long-term monitoring programme to collect a suite of environmental data, including temperature, rainfall, fire and grazing, as well as measurement of biota as it responds to environmental changes. The intent is to track changes over the next 20-30 years to provide objective data about climate change and its effects on KZNSS. Successful implementation of this project will inform the rollout of the project to other areas of the municipality.

This quarter saw the long-awaited launch for the Durban Research Action partnership (D’RAP) which was held at the Durban botanical Gardens on the 30th January 2017. The launch was well attended with addresses from the Vice-Chancellor of UKZN, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld and the senior officials from eThekwini Municipality. The following day, a smaller targeted workshop was held to explore the future development and growth of D’RAP. This session was facilitated by Tracy Brownlee and provided a platform to discuss what has worked well for D’RAP and what are the weaknesses. From this workshop a D’RAP vision document will be developed.
Together at the launch of D’RAP are (from left) Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Mr Errol Douwes, Professor Rob Slotow, Professor Mathieu Rouget, and Dr Sean O’Donoghue.