In the second half of the twentieth century, South Africa built up a reputation as one of the foremost
countries of the world in terms of water infrastructure development. Dam projects such as the Orange
River Scheme and the purification of sewage water to drinking water standards in the Namibian capital
of Windhoek, were some of the many achievements that South Africa boasted.
How was it possible then for a country that was politically isolated to accumulate significant
knowledge on the water sector and literally be on top of their game? A partial answer to this riddle is
the Waterlit Collection (WLC), a collection of articles, reports and academic theses and dissertations
collected and managed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria in the
years from 1974 until the mid-1990s.
This article provides a historical overview of how the WLC of the CSIR, funded by the Water
Research Commission (WRC), was turned into a corpus of more than 300 000 documents. Local
research output at the time, as well as some of the latest research findings in other parts of the world,
became accessible to water researchers in South Africa. There is indeed reason to believe that the
collection contributed to water research in South Africa during the years of isolation. The collection
also facilitated some of the country’s breakthrough technologies in the water sector.
The study also explores how the rapid development of information technologies in library
science, computer science and the evolution of widespread Internet use influenced the collection, which
currently forms part of the South African Water History Archival Repository (SAWHAR) at the North-
West University’s Vaal Campus in Vanderbijlpark, Gauteng.