NWU archive preserves yesterday's water data for tomorrow

NWU archive preserves yesterday's water data for tomorrow

Water and life on earth are inextricably linked and that is why the preservation of our water heritage in an archive is crucial for the future development of our water sources.

The NWU's Vaal Triangle Campus recently established a water archive in cooperation with the Water Research Commission (WRC) of South Africa.

This archive, known as the South African Water History Archival Repository (SAWHAR), contains historical data on water, including the stories of great water projects undertaken in South Africa such as the Tugela Scheme and the Gariep Dam.

A vital facility

Prof Johann Tempelhoff from the School of Basic Sciences, under whose leadership the archive was set up, has no doubts about the importance of this facility.

“In light of climate change and a world population of 7 billion people who often behave irresponsibly with regard to water, this act of conservation is crucial.”

Prof Johann believes the knowledge accumulated through the centuries must serve as the basis for the future development of water sources in South Africa and indeed worldwide.

A lot of valuable water data – in the form of printed and electronic documents (digital) – has already been lost and the establishment of the water archive can prevent the loss of even more information, says Prof Johann.

The archive focuses mainly on digital (computer) information, but also contains printed documents. The latter are currently kept in the existing library on the Vaal Triangle Campus and will eventually be transferred to the new campus library scheduled for completion early in 2014.

“We are already collecting digital archive material. One overseas donor, for instance, is in the process of sending his entire archive of information collected in South Africa and Britain over to us electronically,” says Prof Johann.

“We hope to one day make available – on the internet – all the most important sources in digital format for public use.”

Many will benefit

Various people and institutions will benefit from the archive.

The Department of Water Affairs' historical records from as far back as 1920 – mostly on paper – will be safely preserved in the water archive.

Engineers will also benefit from the archive. “Our data will for instance provide them with thorough knowledge of the past – something without which they would not be able to make responsible decisions about the future when they plan projects,” says Prof Johann.

The archive will also come in handy for people and institutions that manage or administer water, as well as for scientists.

“We have already received private collections that could be a paradise of primary source material for research boffins interested in the intellectual history of water studies.”

Worldwide cooperation

Internationally there is great interest in promoting the world's water heritage. The preservation of information is supported by UNESCO, international water organisations and governments.

“The water archive will cooperate closely with institutions across the world. Later this year we are going to speak about our archive at an international conference in Montpelier, France, where water historians, archivists and museum scientists from all corners of the world will be present.

“The conference-goers intend to form a network that will join forces with the International Water History Association (IWHA) to promote water history by making valuable historical documents more readily available to researchers,” says Prof Johann.

New turn of events

According to him, there is currently a worldwide revolution in public records and the water archive will also become part of it.

This new trend is primarily about greater digital interaction – in other words the exchange or sharing of electronic information between institutions. Secondly, it is also concerns transparency, which implies that information about water is made available to a wider audience, as well as to ordinary water users.

The value of water cannot be overestimated, says Prof Johann.

“Approximately 75% of the human body consists of water, and natural history seems to indicate that mankind has a long tradition of amphibian interaction with water.”

Ultimately we will simply be irresponsible if we fail to view our water sources with respect.