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A tribute to Rowena Hay

Elizabeth Rowena Hay sadly and unexpectedly passed away on Thursday 8th July at the age of 65 after a battle with COVID-19. Rowena founded Muizenberg-based earth science, groundwater and integrated water resource management research consultancy Umvoto Africa in 1992, and was managing director until her passing. Rowena grew up on a farm near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape (a time she always spoke fondly about, and where she also learned to speak fluent isiXhosa), and studied at the University of Cape Town achieving her BSc (1978), BSc Honours (1981) and MSc (1984) degrees in geology. Prior to founding Umvoto Africa she worked at Anglo American, the South African Atomic Energy Corporation and the National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste (NAGRA) in Switzerland – it was here where the numerical modelling work she undertook helped lay the principles for the “monitor-model-manage” approach she would later apply across Umvoto Africa’s groundwater development projects.

Rowena was a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word, particularly for women in science and engineering and small business entrepreneurship (of which she and Umvoto Africa won numerous awards and recognition) not only in South Africa and Africa, but globally. She played an integral role in the understanding and development of the deep fractured aquifer systems of the Table Mountain Group, and pioneered the drilling of 500-1000 m ultradeep exploration and production boreholes across the Western Cape. Her jovial (but strict when required) rapport with even the most hardened drilling contractors, farmers and government officials was a joy to watch and a learning experience for many a young scientist – “it is all about the theatre, my dear” she would say with a huge grin and conductor-like waving arms, upon doing (or getting someone to agree to let her do) the “impossible”. She was also passionate about communities improving their livelihoods through the betterment of their surrounding natural environment, and was deeply involved in disaster risk reduction, gender mainstreaming and social hydrogeology projects (with many being undertaken for the United Nations, where she was a hugely respected international scientist). Out of this she recently established The Umvoto Foundation, a non-profit organisation aimed at merging art and science to foster mutual learning and co-create sustainable solutions for resilient and empowered communities. The rehabilitation of the Lotus River/Canal in order to improve the functioning of the Cape Flats Aquifer and lives of people in the adjacent communities was one of her final goals, and will be continued through the foundation.

Rowena was a loving partner of Chris, mother to Mike and Ruth, much loved sister and aunt, and mentor (and in some cases second mother) to her Umvoto Africa staff (and numerous interns) from the past 30 years. Her unique humour, wit, passion, vibrancy and insight will be greatly missed, but her legacy will continue onwards in the people who had the privilege of knowing and working with her. Many of her famous terms (“no squirrelling rule”, “sideways arabesque”, amongst many others), huge smile and boisterous laugh will be forever remembered, and her spirit will wash in time with the tides into her favourite South Peninsula tidal pools. Umvoto Africa and The Umvoto Foundation sends their deepest condolences to the Hay and Hartnady families, and all of Rowena’s friends and colleagues.

Any condolences can be sent through to Umvoto Africa at amanzi@umvoto.com, as the family has asked for privacy at the moment.


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muizenberg, Cape town