Does South Africa deserve its declining environmental quality?

16 April 2012

Droplets has been quiet for a few days, as some regulars have noticed.  I have been busy working through a batch of diatom samples collected from rivers across a single South African province.  The results have been quite unsettling, reflecting a much wider (geographic) level of water quality degradation that I had anticipated.

Droplets readers will be aware of the unique value of the diatom group of algae as powerful indicators of both water quality and ecological condition of rivers and streams.  They will also be aware that our leading research organization, the WRC, failed to recognize this and discontinued the pivotal work for the Diatom Assessment Protocol (DAP), at a critical stage.  This astounding and extremely-negative move singularly negated all the progress we (a DHEC-led project) had made in catching up with world-standard use of diatoms – doing in six years what other countries had taken 20 to achieve!

But that is now (polluted) water under the bridge – it’s more about personalities than serious consideration of scientific value – highlighting the inadequacies of water research management in this country – i.e. an inability to recognize key value-adding research directions.  I have serious doubts about the credentials of certain managers to direct aquatic science in this country.

Which brings me to another issue that Droplets is mulling over:  Does South Africa deserve what it gets from government?  Regrettably the answer seems to be “yes”.  South Africans simply don’t care enough about (amongst others) environmental issues, and almost nothing about water.  We have always been a reactive nation: a child has to die outside a school before a traffic control system is installed.  I live on an urban street, managed by an apparently world-class municipality, the latter having admitted that in excess of 70% of road users routinely exceed the speed limit. This has been going on for 20 years.  Yet, their excuse for not installing traffic calming is that the road is too steep and traffic movement would be slowed (!?).  Strange, but true.  Further BS excuses indicate that the installation of a single speed camera costs in excess of R1 million!

An assessment of responses to water quality issues posted on Droplets strongly suggests that South Africans, compared with responses from other countries to the same issues, simply don’t care.  Not yet anyway.  Today the South African Department of Water Affairs, for too long a bureaucrat-driven disaster, has indicated that the cost of water will have to increase in an attempt to try and compensate for the massive decay of infrastructure – due to no other reason than bad management and (preventable) loss of skills.  Not unique to Water Affairs, this is typical of pretty much every government department bar Inland Revenue (no prizes for guessing why screwing money out of taxpayers is the most important government function).

As we have said before, you get what you vote for!  (but, the decay is so pervasive that I doubt any opposition party could make any really positive changes at this stage).


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