​The Institute originated as the Division of Chemistry, established in 1902 as one of the 10 Divisions of the Transvaal Department of Agriculture under the British regime. The Division’s function was to provide agricultural and non-agricultural routine and regulatory chemical services to various Government Departments. In 1911, after South Africa became independent as the Union of South Africa, the four State Departments of Agriculture amalgamated as the Union Department of Agriculture, maintaining the Division of Chemistry with laboratories in Pretoria as its headquarters, in Johannesburg and in Cape Town.

This Division was also charged with the coordination and direction of research and investigational work undertaken by the Schools of Agriculture at Cedara, Potchefstroom, Glen and Grootfontein. In 1923 the Department of Public Health’s laboratories were made the responsibility of the Division but the laboratories of the Division of Veterinary Education and Research at Onderstepoort, specializing in biochemistry, were retained by the latter Division.

The two Divisions, however, jointly researched aspects such as mineral deficiencies in soils and plants. In 1925 a Soil Survey subdivision, responsible for national soil surveys to determine soil suitability for irrigation and other agricultural uses, was established at the Division of Chemistry, and in 1929 the systematic collection and tabulation of data on the soils of South Africa started. Much attention was paid to saline soil investigations, a major problem in irrigated and irrigable lands identified in the 1800s.

A new phase was entered in 1935 when the name of the Division changed to the Division of Chemical Services to indicate more clearly the wide extent of agricultural and non-agricultural duties performed for state departments. By 1960, the workload for non-agricultural analyses had increased, hampering the Division’s research and soil survey work,

so the Department decided to retain responsibility for agricultural work only. In 1962 the Division was renamed the Soil Research Institute.

Soil surveys were comprehensive when initiated, including the correlation of soil with the meteorology, topography, geology and botany of the region investigated. The transfer of the Department’s agrometeorological service to the Institute in 1970 was therefore a logical step. Also in 1970, an Irrigation Planning section was established, and in 1971 the Institute was renamed the Soil and Irrigation Research Institute (SIRI). Following a major inspection in 1978, SIRI was allocated national responsibility for intensive studies on the natural resources soil, water (within agricultural context) and climate, as well as the interpretation of related information. This enabled a holistic approach on soil-plant-atmosphere relationships. The electronic integration of natural resource data to ensure sustainability and profitable agriculture was a natural outflow and in mid-1980, a geographic information division was begun at SIRI. The final technological development was the establishment of a remote sensing unit at SIRI. This was initiated in 1972 when the Department and other role players compiled a report to participate in an American satellite venture to speed up land use planning.

In 1992 the research component of the then Department of Agricultural Development became the parastatal Agricultural Research Council (ARC), and the Institute was renamed the Institute for Soil, Climate and Water (ISCW). ARC-ISCW’s new development phase thus commenced with leading expertise in soil science, agrometeorology, soil-water science, spatial modelling, geographic information systems, remote sensing and analytical chemistry, enabling the ARC to realize related objectives and strategies in integrated natural resource use and management. The Institute functions under the ARC Business Division: Research and Innovation Systems.​

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