South Africa’s eutrophication nemesis: Hartbeespoort Dam

26 May 2011

We cannot continue to ignore the elephants! (Photo: Bill Harding)

nemesis“,  a term for an enemy or archenemy, a person(s) or action(s) that preclude(s) effective progress

Any discussion of eutrophication in South Africa will, invariably, include mention of Hartbeespoort Dam (‘Harties’).  The recent reporting on Midmar Dam was no exception, with the”if we are not careful, our dam will become like Harties” argument.  These discussions all skirt around the enormous elephant present in the room, this pachyderm representing the spectacular lack of success in making any positive progress towards improving the ecosystem health of Hartbeespoort Dam.  

Before I go any further with this critique, I need to establish my bona fides:  I headed the scientific team that formulated the Hartbeespoort Dam Remediation Protocol, work conducted during 2004-5 and funded by the government of the North West Province.  I am also the only Certified Lake Manager in South Africa and one of a handful of practicing limnologists (lake biologists) in this country.  My involvement with Hartbeespoort Dam goes back to work as a student scientist with the CSIR, starting in 1975.  I have had no further involvement at Harties since I submitted the reports in 2005.  I have a long-standing desire to see the management of South African dams given its rightful place, led and managed by experienced individuals.

The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) largely avoided any direct involvement with the study that I headed up, either while it was running or thereafter, i.e no opportunity was provided to work through the proposals with an implementing team.  During the project, their representative actually went so far as to  challenge the role of the Finnish project manager appointed by North-West!  However, once the project was over and the reports handed in, DWA hijacked it and created a grandiose remediation project structure, the Metsi a me project.  The net outcome of this multi-million rand project, insofar as fixing Harties is concerned, has been a resounding nothing!  The project has a pitiful website, on which the most active and up-to-date page is that listing all the questions that have been asked in Parliament about what is happening (and even this is not complete)!

By 2011, given the elapsed six years and expenditure (this project has cost more than the sum of all similar work undertaken on all dams in this country), this project should have produced reams of data and interpreted results, published many scientific papers and supported at least three MSc degrees, plus several mentored scientists and technicians. The only ‘scientific publications’ listed on the website are from a bygone era!  To the contrary, we have heard strange excuses that some of the things that are being done ‘cannot be measured’.  OK, the obvious question here is ‘why would you try something you cannot measure?’ but, more to the point, this reflects on who is doing the work and their qualifications for doing so.  Here lies much of the problem with this project: it is staffed and managed by individuals who are keen and well-intentioned, but hopelessly under-qualified for what they are attempting to undertake.  Just read some of the stuff on the website and you will see what I mean.  Effective leadership and implementation has been sorely lacking.

One has to ask: why was this allowed to happen, as the DWA and, by default, the Water Research Commission (WRC), clearly stands by everything that is happening, although, finally, the calls for an audit into the expenditure has now been agreed to by the Minister. Criticism of the project has arisen from within and outside of the Metsi a me team. The rumours of gravy-train salaries for ‘consultants’ on this project abound, as well as expenditure on ‘other stuff’ not relevant to the remediation.  And, by the way, where is the peer review?

The Remediation Protocol, as formulated in 2004, was not a recipe for instant muffins.  It required informed direction and experienced implementers.  To fix Hartbeespoort Dam’s problems, the problem has to first be addressed at source, i.e. at the sewage treatment plants that discharge into the rivers leading to the dam – and even then it will be difficult. If this (start at source of problem)  is not addressed effectively, then pretty-much everything else is doomed to failure. The Metsiame Project, however, started mostly with the stuff that should have been attempted after the source reduction. Lets look at an example:

The remediation study identified the possibility of biomanipulation (fish) as an adjunct to the overall remediation programme.  This option was taken on board on the advice of contracted fish biologists and included in the final set of recommendations.  It was, however, a still-to-be tested option that received very strong criticism from other aquatic biologists and fish scientists, so much so that one refused to have anything to do with testing it!  The biologists who made the recommendation declined to debate with the critics…

I set up a focussed monitoring protocol, specifically designed to assess whether or not the so-called de-fishing of Hartbeespoort Dam would deliver the proposed benefits.  This project, funded by the WRC, was declined by the Metsi a me team (!) and so, while fishing started at Harties, the research project was undertaken at nearby Rietvlei – a dam with a similarly-structured population of fish.  The findings of this two-year study have confirmed that the critics were right!  No similar monitoring has been conducted at Harties, so there is no baseline of information or any idea of what has happened in the ecosystem as fish have been removed.  There are also issues of toxin accumulation in the fish, which we now know to occur at hazardous levels but which is allegedly denied by the project team.

So, once again Hartbeespoort Dam has won, without really having to try, and an enormous sum of money has been wasted, largely, I believe, because the project manager wants to be both manager and scientist (but has no qualifications for the latter).  The lack of progress has been damaging for lake science in a country where lakes (dams) receive almost no scientific attention.  It has also created a negative impression internationally, if the comments and raised eyebrows about the Metsi a me presentations made at the 2010 international conference in Cape Town were anything to go by.  We have many dams in similar or worse condition and the failures at Harties will negatively influence decisions to try and fix them.

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