Transforming water research through integrated approaches

IWMI researcher Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi’s collaborative, integrative approach to research yields studies that reveal and address the complex interconnections between water and all aspects of life.

An interview with Dr. Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi

By Clara Colton Symmes, Princeton in Asia Fellow, IWMI

IWMI researcher Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi’s collaborative, integrative approach to research yields studies that reveal and address the complex interconnections between water and all aspects of life.

Farmers set up a solar-powered irrigation pump in Ethiopia. Photo: Maheder Haileselassie / IWMI
Farmers set up a solar-powered irrigation pump in Ethiopia. Photo: Maheder Haileselassie / IWMI

Since joining IWMI in November 2021, Dr. Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi has contributed to more than 12 journal articles, attended the World Water Forum in Dakar, and was named the new Research Group Leader for Sustainable and Resilient Food Production Systems (SURF).

Dr. Mabhaudhi has also been nominated to be a member of the African Academy of Sciences and later this month, he will attend the National Science and Technology Forum Awards as a finalist for the Water Research Commission Award. His colleagues nominated him in recognition of his work on the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus in South Africa and Southern Africa.

It was the NEXUS Gains Initiative, which aims to realize “multiple benefits across water, energy, food, and ecosystems” in transboundary river basins around the world, that attracted Dr. Mabhaudhi to IWMI. As a self-described “integrator,” he is working to transform these systems in the face of climate change through methods that reflect these systems’ fundamentally interconnected natures.

Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi
Photo by Tony Carnie

Though he stumbled upon this nexus by accident while writing the final chapter of his PhD in 2012, he now sees it as one of his greatest passions. As a crop scientist, he has focused on crop drought tolerance and water use, and the interconnectedness of water, energy, and food has played into nearly every aspect of his work. Some of his recent work has centered around the potential of underutilized, indigenous, and traditional crops as a more ecologically friendly, drought-tolerant, and nutrient-dense approach to agriculture.

His highly collaborative research style exposes him to interlinkages many researchers do not make. For example, in another recent study, he collaborated with a former colleague to study how exposure to disasters such as floods and droughts can spur the onset of depression. He is taking his people-centric approach to research to his new position as a Research Group Leader, exposing researchers to new thoughts and challenges, and seeking to mentor his team in and out of the research field. “I’m going to focus on the individuals that make up our research group,” he says, “and how I can support each one of them to be the best they can be.”

Continue reading to learn more about Dr. Mabhaudhi’s research philosophy and the work he is contributing to at IWMI.

Why is an integrated approach to water, energy, food, and ecosystems so important to sustainable development?

For most of my career, I wrote that water was the most limiting factor in agriculture. But the WEF nexus demonstrates that it is not just about water security. You cannot have water security without energy security, without food security, and without ecological integrity and security. They are all interlinked, and no one is more important than another. Sustainable development requires these resources to work together. This approach can be applied anywhere else in life. In the case of NEXUS Gains, we have just taken water, energy, food, and ecosystems, but you could very well apply this model to other interlinkages. For example, poverty cannot be addressed without considering unemployment and inequality. That is what creates a nexus — each element is equally important to the others.

How does collaboration impact your research?

Collaboration exposes you to diversity and inclusion, which spur innovation. I would not have made the link between water and mental health myself, but I have now collaborated with a public health colleague on two papers on exactly that link. Relief efforts typically have focused on physical health, but those impacted by disasters must be supported mentally as well in order to recover.

Water does not exist in isolation; it exists within and among other systems. Researchers must collaborate and partner with those who have different priorities or think differently than a water scientist might. And we must be willing to listen. This is key. If you are unwilling to listen, you may miss the important part of the conversation. Then we will begin to participate in research that really addresses water’s interlinkages.

What are some projects that you’ve been working on lately?

Recently, I’ve been working on a project funded by the Wellcome Trust. We’re studying the interlinkages between agriculture, the environment, and health, while developing innovative approaches to inform the transition towards more sustainable food systems. Underutilized crops could contribute to this transition, focusing on areas in the Global South that are prone to drought, water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, and lack of dietary diversity. One of our focuses is how to increase the nutritional productivity of water — how much nutritional value could be produced per unit, or the nutritional footprint.

This work ties into several initiatives, including Sustainable Intensification of Mixed Farming Systems, Ukama Ustawi, Nature Positive Solutions, and NEXUS Gains, where we are using this information to diversify crops by exploring which crops and cropping systems specifically provide the greatest nutritional value using the least amount of water.

Can you tell us more about your involvement with NEXUS Gains?

One of my great passions is the WEF Nexus. It is one of my favorite research areas. I got into it by accident around 2012 when I was writing the final chapter of my PhD. I was reading about the WEF nexus, and it really made so much sense. Farmers I had been working with focused mostly on the trade-offs between water and food, but the energy element was always there, especially when it came to lack of access to or funds for pumping and distributing water. But I never made the connection until then.

When I joined IWMI, NEXUS Gains spoke to the core of my research interests. I am an integrator, I like to work at multiple levels and across systems, and because this initiative seeks to deliver multiple gains across multiple systems, it really called out my name. We are working on modelling and foresight, water productivity (including economic and nutritional productivity), water security, building governance systems that support necessary transformations, capacity development, and supporting women in science and community.

Dr. Mabhaudhi demonstrates an automatic weather station to learners at a rural high school in Swayimane, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Photo: Umgeni Resilience Project
Dr. Mabhaudhi demonstrates an automatic weather station to learners at a rural high school in Swayimane, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Photo: Umgeni Resilience Project

You’ve been named as a finalist for the National Science and Technology Awards. How does it feel?

It is quite humbling. I started this work out of personal interest, so being recognized for it is quite rewarding. It took a lot of convincing from my colleagues for me to allow them to submit my nomination; I tend to shy away from these types of things. But it was quite a surreal moment when I reviewed the application they composed for me and looked over the work I had done. Sometimes when you are working, you have put your head down and never take time to pause and look at how far you have actually come. These nominations recognize the contributions I have made within the WEF nexus in Southern Africa, and the first four years of research were unfunded and out of personal interest. But we built a lot of momentum, and the funding started coming in around 2016, and now we have generated a significant amount of work in the field.

What upcoming work with IWMI are you most excited about?

I am most excited by far to continue my work with NEXUS Gains. It is a really important project at the forefront of research and knowledge generation. If understood and implemented well, it can shape the next decade of research at IWMI and position us as a global leader, not only in water but in the other systems it addresses.

What makes you feel hope about the future for water systems and food systems?

We talk about climate change as the greatest challenge of our generation, but if you look at it, the challenges to food and water have always been there; they have just become more complex. But our understanding of this complexity has also increased. We know so much more now than we did a couple of decades ago, and we have many better approaches to deliver clean water and food that is nutritious to everyone. I think we are in a much better place than we were a couple of decades ago to deal with the complex water and food challenges.

And in my role as a research group leader, I hope to move into an age of more integrated and systematic research. IWMI is big on diversity and inclusion. I want to concentrate on nurturing young talent by bringing on more young scientists and researchers to mentor and push them to the heights of greatness they have never imagined on their own.

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