Just how broken is Water Affairs?

7 May 2012

Photo: Bill Harding

After many months of warnings, there now appears to be a general agreement that South Africa faces a massive water crisis.  No less a source than the Minister of Water Affairs (DWA) has acknowledged that something urgently needs to be done to offset a “near crisis situation”.  But, a major component of the problem, managing our dams, continues to be ignored.

Predictions, such as those contained in the recent SA Water Carbon Disclosure Report indicate that, within the next decade or so, the crunch will begin to constrain this country’s ability to sustain itself or indeed to undertake vital economic development.  The alarms about water remain centered on the amount of water available, but there is a small but increasing awareness about the quality of this water.  Quite simply put, you may have enough water but if it is too polluted for your intended use, you have a big problem.

South Africa has an existing problem with water quality – with a large and significant percentage of our available resources already dangerously polluted by wastewater effluents.  Forty-two percent of respondents to an industry survey about water concerns have identified declining water quality as a threat to direct operations.  This figure is probably far higher.

There is an urgent need for a concerted effort to manage our reservoirs (dams) on a firm, scientific foundation.  Decisions need to be taken based on findings from soundly-collected empirical data, derived from studies on local examples.  Importantly, the research that is undertaken needs to be informed by the dwindling “research memory” that still exists in this country, and a knowledgeable advisory science base needs to be maintained.

In a recent article, Tony Stone, former president of IMIESA, observes that we are fortunate to have “science on our side” when we need to make the right decisions about a path of action.  Crucially, he notes that:

Scientific and management principles are there to guide us. And, from these principles, we know that it is quite inappropriate to make a decision, especially about complex technical issues, when ignorance prevails, or when simplistic ideology dictates.

So, what happens if the findings of science are ignored or there are no scientists left to provide the appropriate input and direction?  Here is an example where Water Affairs have fallen foul of these scenarios:

Quite recently, a body of exploratory work provisionally-identified a possible option for alleviating the pressures of eutrophication (nutrient-enrichment) in South African dams.  Scientists contracted to provide opinions on this indicated that a method valid for countries in Europe would work in South Africa.  However, a contrary opinion arose and which, based on many years of experience and previous local research, indicated that the proposed approach was likely to be invalid.  An impasse ensued and a further study was funded to test the theory using two complementary approaches, inclusive of evaluating a new and innovative approach for assessing conditions in our dams.

In the meantime, Water Affairs went ahead with the original proposal, i.e. without waiting for it to be tested and went so far as to prevent the aforementioned research from being conducted in the same dam as they were working.

The outcome of the research project has now conclusively confirmed that a single local scientist, with in-depth experience based on a lifetime of experience, was correct.  The method was indeed irrelevant for use in South Africa.  As the results became known, so emerged a thinly-veiled attempt to discredit them.  It became clear that a firmly-entrenched ‘position’ was being defended, without any supporting hard empirical scientific data, or its scientifically-unqualified proponent being willing to engage in genuine scientific debate.  Playing the man became the adopted option.

This example does not bode well for our current or future ability to manage our dams as semi-natural lake ecosystems.  They are, after all, ‘man-made lakes’.  In this case, the national repository of appropriate knowledge resided in a single, elderly scientist!  Had this lone voice not been available, even more millions would have been wasted on an invalid technique – based on the opinions, as Tony Stone puts it, of a simplistic ideology underwritten by prevailing ignorance.

This single case is symptomatic of a much larger problem – the aforementioned example is not the only one:  South Africa has yet to develop any form of management scheme for our dams – as acknowledged by the Minister.  Additionally, and more concerning, is that residual skills and knowledge about how to do this is almost entirely depleted – and the DWA continues to decline any offers of help to redress this.

Reservoir science clearly needs revitalization in South Africa.  This needs to be done before we are faced with a complete dearth of individuals with appropriate limnological training and experience.  A huge investment has been made in developing an understanding, why throw it away and start again?

The system is broken!  It must be repaired, now.

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