School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

UKZN Hydrology lecturer and climate change expert Dr Simphiwe Ngcobo.

Hydrology Lecturer’s PhD Builds Knowledge about Climate Variability’s Effects on Sugarcane

Dr Simphiwe Ngcobo’s PhD assessed the impacts of climate variability on commercial sugarcane across South Africa and unpacked the delicate and complex balance between sustainable water resources management and increased production of high-value commodity crops.

Ngcobo is a home-grown graduate. Raised in Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, he attended Injoloba High School before enrolling at UKZN for his tertiary studies. The University’s Discipline of Hydrology and the Centre for Water Resources Research’s (CWRR) reputation as the leading authority in agrohydrological research on the continent, with internationally recognised research outputs and luminaries in the field, made the Institution a natural choice for the budding scientist.

Thanks to the support of the Discipline and the CWRR, Ngcobo’s path to his PhD was clear – he benefitted from a supportive learning environment, access to cutting-edge tools for research, training opportunities, psychosocial support, expert advice and supervision, and research funding.

For his research, Ngcobo assessed the impacts of enhanced climate variability on commercial and smallholder sugarcane production in six catchments across four countries in southern Africa. He recognised that despite sugarcane production’s critical economic, social, political and agronomic importance, its longevity, viability, and resilience are under immense pressure from the increased frequency of climatic extremes, which have led to significant yield declines over the past 25 years.

Supervised by Professor Graham Jewitt, Professor Trevor Hill and Professor Emma Archer, Ngcobo’s research was at the intersection of hydrology and agronomy – agrohydrology – and aimed at contributing to the dearth of research addressing the impacts of increased climate variability on water resources and sugarcane yields at the relevant spatial and temporal scales. Sugarcane is a land- and water-use-intensive crop that plays an important role in the South African economy and is threatened by changing water resource availability and climate volatility.

‘There are practically no studies that have addressed sugarcane production’s vulnerability and adaptation potential at sufficient spatial and temporal scales,’ said Ngcobo. ‘This means studies such as this constitute an important, albeit small, contribution to highlighting the importance of addressing the interactions between sugarcane production and the current impacts of increased climatic variability on water resources.’

Balancing his PhD studies with his demanding lecturing, administrative, supervisory and research roles, as well as a growing young family, was a challenge. Ngcobo had to invest time and effort in prioritising the essential basics to support his mental and physical health – getting a good night’s sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, practising mindfulness, eliminating substances, taking time off and being present with his family, learning to say no to non-essential tasks, and not fretting over missed deadlines or rejected papers. Ngcobo learnt to appreciate the joys and achievements of completing his PhD.

Ngcobo’s path to his PhD had its challenges – he lost his mother while pursuing his PhD and other close family members in quick succession. He navigated difficulties that included deteriorating mental and physical health during his studies, supervisors and important mentors leaving UKZN, unusually heavy teaching, research and supervision loads, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that tested his commitment to his studies.

‘Regardless of all these challenges, this PhD was bigger than me; it was a promise I made to the people that made me who I am, and it represented a dream that could not be deferred, so I had little choice but to find a way to adapt, pick myself up, dust myself off and keep moving forward,’ said Ngcobo.

Having achieved the dream, Ngcobo expressed deep gratitude and love for his family, especially his daughter Azania, his partner Mpumi, and sisters Hlengiwe and Amanda for their encouragement, humour and patience, which made the PhD possible. He also thanked his supervisors for their commitment to him, patience, motivation and guidance.

Finally, he acknowledged his late mother, Ms Bafikile Ngcobo. ‘This was entirely for her, and I hope I have made her proud,’ said Ngcobo.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini