Pointers from SAWEF 2011

8 March 2011

The South African Water and Energy Forum (SAWEF) recently held a two-day symposium dealing with  critical changes facing South Africa – towards a sustainable SA. It’s time for action! I was unable to attend this meeting but was keen to discern the extent to which water quality issues were identified as components of these challenges. To this end the organizers kindly made available copies of the plenary presentations delivered at the event.

It is always difficult to fully assess the intentions and stories of presenters just from their PowerPoint presentations.  I have trouble with my own!  Nonetheless, I have distilled the following from the material provided to me (not all were relevant to my theme):

Mike Muller (former DWAE DG) took the quality issues head-on and made clear that “deteriorating water quality will aggravate shortages“.   This is pleasing in that Mike comes from a DWA era of denial of water quality risks, a period during which eutrophication (read water pollution) did not merit a high priority because of the perceived low return for the high cost of nutrient control – a perception as wrong then as it is now! (but sadly still not comprehended by many).  Ironically, Mike used the example of the problems in South Africa’s eutrophication nemesis, Hartbeespoort Dam – an infamous case study of our long-standing inability to effectively attenuate eutrophication.

Mike also noted the damage that tunnel-vision attention to single problems can do.  In this regard he alludes to the gross over-exposure of the AMD issue, a process that for more than a year has eclipsed far more serious and geographically-pervading water quality problems.  Yes, AMD is a crisis, but its one component of a bigger crisis.  Appeals by myself and others to TV journal programmes, magazines and dailies have gone unheeded in the pursuit of sensationalist, single-minded reporting.

Mike Muller made no bones about pointing out that water crisis issues will come home to roost within 10 years and that “its  time to panic: Now”.  He advocates the prioritization of water quality interventions – for eutrophication this means address the problem at source, the wastewater treatment works, now.

Roland Schulze incorporated water quality into his presentation dealing with climate change.  He touched on the fact that while water quality is increasingly perceived to be an issue, the ability to address it has been offset by loss of skills.  Usefully he reminded the decision makers that policy needs to be science-driven, not science driven by policy – unfortunately a characteristic that emerged along with the new Water Act.

Lake managers such as myself are probably more acutely aware of the actual climate change impacts than most.  Research on this has been very active in countries such as Denmark, a country where the social calendar has already been adjusted to compensate for seasonal change.  We know that, for South Africa, we can expect lower critical thresholds of nutrients, above which water quality problems will accelerate.  This will require adaptation, an aspect that Schulze notes but which is not implicit from his presentation.

Other presentations dealt with virtual water (has South Africa only heard about this now..?), the horrific water quality impacts of coal mining and something of an advert for the pebblebed reactor technology.  Re the latter all I can say is that nuclear power generation is going to be a given in the future, everyone might as well get their heads around it now.

So, all in all the signs are there that elements of vital thinking are in place.  Critically, these need to be conveyed to the wider audience of civil society.  One of the presentations observed that “what appears in the press is only as good as the capacity of scientists to engage with journalists, AND the prejudices of the media owners“.  My experience is that investigative journalism is now at such a low that it is difficult to find anyone who is prepared or has the time to become properly informed.  As long as we have news articles comprising ‘sound bites’ from different sources, all that will happen is that Joe Public will become confused or simply disinterested.

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