Demise of the Diatom Project

11 December 2010

The recent return of diatoms (silicaceous algae) to biomonitoring in South Africa has been one of the most exciting developments for many years.  Diatoms, unlike any other biotic indicator, are not affected by issues of habitat, flow rate, seasonality and the like.  They provide a very accurate reflection of water quality, integrated over several weeks, in fact as much as 70% of the water quality condition is represented by diatom assemblages.  As many users of this approach have discovered, diatoms provide a level of diagnostic sensitivity not otherwise available.  They are also especially useful in the forensic analysis of climate change impacts.

Cymbella kappii

In 2004, the Water Research Commission (WRC), commenced funding of what, to-date, has become a three-phase project that has produced a complete kit of methods and taxonomic tools for the use of diatoms in biomonitoring – the Diatom Assessment Protocol (DAP).  In just six years, two people have accomplished what whole teams have taken much longer to do in other countries.  The value of diatoms is cosmopolitan and they have served, since the early 1990s, as fundamental components of monitoring programmes such as the EU Water Framework Directive.

Surirella ovalis 7000xi

The WRC project, now completing its third phase, has produced sampling and laboratory guides, with narrated training videos, printed and electronic taxonomic keys and, most recently, a South African-calibrated index that integrates endemic species into the interpretation of diatom assemblages.  At the same time, some twenty people have been upskilled in the use of diatoms and two commercial laboratories now offer the method.

Sadly, Phase 4 of this work has not been approved, after two submissions, largely due to the very odd behaviour of the Department of Water Affairs (DWA).

From the outset, back in 2003/4, the underlying intention of this work was to provide a fourth leg to the toolbox of biomonitoring methods – the others being aquatic vegetation, aquatic insects (invertebrates) and fish.  Diatoms are located at the interface between water chemistry and the aquatic foodweb.  During 2009 it came as something of a shock to learn that the DWA declined to contribute twelve percent of the project cost for Phase 4 – this being the only condition set by the WRC for approving further funding of the research work necessary to ensure the reliability and confidence levels of the approach and, importantly, to continue to include regionally-specific data.  Without this long-planned work, the value of the DAP as a whole will be limited.

During 2010, a parliamentary statement by the (previous) Minister of Water Affairs indicated that the DWA was fully supportive of the use of diatoms in its River Health Programme (RHP).  At the outset of Phase 3 of the work, the WRC team approached and met with DWA officials to coordinate the integration of the tools produced into the Ecostatus and RHP programmes. Nothing came of this, despite the presence of senior DWA representatives on the Steering Committee of the WRC project, some specifically appointed to integrate the project with the needs of the National Regulator.

It came as a further shock (2010 has been a year for shocks) to discover that the DWA had separately initiated the development of diatom-based tools for inclusion in its RHP Implementation Manual.  Despite parallel involvements, this was not discussed with the WRC or the team working on the DAP!  Given that the DWA has no diatomology skills or resources, the actions of the DWA are curious in the extreme.

Tabellaria floculosa

Last week, following a WRC Steering Committee meeting that unanimously concluded that the project should continue, we learnt that the second submission of a proposal for Phase 4 had again been declined by the WRC on the basis of insufficient funds!

I believe that this short-sighted decision is a dark day for aquatic science in South Africa.  The analysis of diatoms provides a minimally-biased, non-arbitrary assessment technique that is of immense value to water resource managers, researchers and industry – and it is needed right now!

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