School of Engineering


University Mourns the Passing of Water and Sanitation Pioneer

Click here for isiZulu version

The University community was saddened to learn of the passing of long-time staff member and international water and sanitation pioneer, Professor Chris Buckley, on 27 May 2021 after a hard and brave fight against cancer.

Buckley was Director of the UKZN Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Research and Development Centre (the WASH R&D Centre), formally known as the Pollution Research Group (PRG).

‘Chris was a true legend and pioneer who dedicated his life to providing water and sanitation services to the unserved,’ say his colleagues and friends, Mrs Susan Mercer and Dr Konstantina Velkushanova.


Buckley was a well-known, iconic figure in the international water and sanitation field and touched the lives of many, both personally and professionally. ‘He was one of those unique people that always managed to inspire everyone with his astonishing general knowledge and deep understanding of science and engineering,’ said Mercer.

Buckley’s dedication to his students and young researchers resulted in the production of more than 100 master’s and PhD graduates, the majority of whom are now well-established professionals in the water and sanitation sector.

‘Each of them carries a piece of Chris’s passion, determination to solve problems, and his love for life and learning. His charismatic personality, radiant smile and mischievous sense of humour will forever be remembered,’ said Velkushanova.

Buckley’s career in the water and sanitation field began in the 1970s as a postgraduate student in Chemical Engineering at the then University of Natal. He joined the Pollution Research Group (PRG) in 1972 – a small group of three or four people that had been formed in 1971. He took over the leadership of the PRG in 1985 and was appointed as the full-time head in 1987.

Under Buckley’s guidance, the PRG delivered ground breaking research in the water and sanitation field and expanded its research scope beyond chemical engineering to become a trans-disciplinary contract research hub with local, national and international recognition of its work.

Over the span of his research career, Buckley secured significant funding grants from organisations such as the Water Research Commission, eThekwini Municipality and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as many other public and private organisations. His commitment to producing high quality research outputs and his ability to adapt to the changing research landscape ensured that these funding relationships endured under his leadership.

In order to reflect the growing range of research undertaken by the group, the PRG was rebranded and relaunched as the WASH R&D Centre in December 2020.

‘Chris was always full of bright and innovative ideas at any time of the day or night,’ said Dr Catherine Sutherland, a colleague from Development Studies. ‘He constantly developed research questions to address water and sanitation challenges, and then set about establishing a network of researchers (both young and established) who would go on a journey of discovery with him. He built these relationships so easily and quickly, not requiring formal systems to secure them, but rather using respect, trust and the spirit of Ubuntu as his means of connection.

‘His colleagues and students would know that after a time of intense discussion about a particular problem, Chris would quietly stand up, straighten his beard, undo his board marker and miraculously summarise all that had been said in a perfect diagram on the whiteboard.’

Buckley travelled around the world in his quest to solve water and sanitation challenges and served on numerous committees, working groups and task teams. ‘In all the places he visited, he made new friends and work contacts thanks to his social nature and open mindedness to embrace new cultures and experiences,’ said Dr Santiago Septien, a senior researcher at the WASH R&D Centre.

‘Chris had the same friendly attitude towards everyone regardless of their age, background or social standing. His worldwide popularity was beyond measure, as he managed to connect people and create partnerships in either a formal or informal context.’

Buckley’s contributions to the water and sanitation sector have been celebrated through a number of awards such as the Water Research Commission Legacy Award and being granted Honorary Membership by the Water Institute of Southern Africa.

‘We express our heartfelt condolences to the family of Professor Buckley,’ said Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, Professor Albert Modi. ‘Chris was an international legend within the water and sanitation field. He was a wonderful element of the University of Natal and then UKZN for close to half a century. He has left his legacy, which we shall maintain. We mourn the passing of a giant.’

Said Mercer: ‘Chris will be truly missed by all – family, students, colleagues and friends, but he leaves a lasting legacy through the WASH R&D Centre. He is an institution and will forever be loved and remembered for his enormous lifetime contribution.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied