South Africa’s absence from the world stage of lake management: Some facts

23 May 2012

South Africa's lake management skills: Time to re-build (Photo: Bill Harding)

Fact: South Africa is dependent on water stored in dams

Fact: Many of South Africa’s dams are extremely polluted

Fact: Dams (reservoirs) should be managed as functional, healthy semi-natural ecosystems

Fact: South Africa has allowed local reservoir-management skills to almost disappear

Scary but true.  Not too long ago, South Africa was a place where aquatic scientists from other countries came to learn.  The CSIR, in its erstwhile and rightful guise, as a provider of government-funded, top-class research, encompassed the National Institute for Water Research, augmented by nearby institutes for chemistry and microbiology – one did not have to walk far down the passage or across the lawn to tap into the brain of someone who could provide advice.  Around this hub were aligned various research units at Universities.  Research units at some of the bigger local authorities, such as Cape Town, were described as rivaling some overseas universities.

All gone now.  Following the metamorphosis of the CSIR  into a flashy consultancy, with profit-driven motives, coupled with the willful denial of the need to continue reservoir research,  those scientists who did not emigrate moved into consultancy-operations.  Secure salaries were replaced by the need to make money and the opportunity to walk down the passage and enjoy the benefits of working amongst like-minded specialists, all disappeared.  River science and, much later, wetland science, predominated to the near-exclusion of anything to do with dams, despite the latter being a key nodal point along river systems.  But all of this was mostly consultancy-driven which, in terms of skills development, is mostly a one-way street that leads away from building a national memory of skills and experience.

Much is currently being made about the integration of water, energy and economic issues via the so-called ‘nexus’ concept – a new buzzword term for hub, node, synapse or think-tank. What is new is that the current line of thinking now wishes to integrate industry into this mix, i.e. that vital sector of the economy that stands to be hit hardest once the water crisis goes viral.  This should, hopefully, provide a level of impetus that could shake things up.

A fundamental expectation of this nexus must be that when they call for advice, skills and interpreted data (information), that these will be available.  If so, they are in for a shock.  Insofar as dams are concerned, i.e. the point from which water to industry begins its final journey, while moves are being made to try and re-position issues such as eutrophication back into the national aquatic research psyche, these are focussed on trying to simply understand the problem (yet again, for this is a cyclical problem recurring each time there is a change of management), rather than do something about it.  Its all been done before but we are about to step into the same trap again.  Does nobody listen – or is there no-one out there who is informed enough to listen properly?

When it comes to data, the reams and reams of numbers that the DWA collect and archive way are just that: archived away.  There is no on-going interpretation by anyone skilled in an understanding of water chemistry – it would need a team-approach anyway.  Numbers are simply compared against boundary limits, if at all.  Each time trends are needed they have to be specifically worked-up, often again  and again for the same data, as noted by my colleague, Mark Dent:

We are effectively paying for the same work over and over again, no matter who wins the contract.  The financial folly of this situation will come to light when the NEXUS players begin to function and stakeholder sector groupings have to pay for these analyses themselves. The situation at present is analogous to motor car manufacturer  building a new assembly plant every time there is a fresh order for a batch of cars. Even if they do not actually build a new plant, because theirs is a re-order, they put the full recovery cost of the plant into the price of the batch of cars. That is absurd you might be thinking. You are right, it is absurd and yet it has been happening for years in water resources analyses and many other areas of analysis in the water realm. NEXUS players will surely change this.

Oh, and along with the CSIR and such, out of the window with the bathwater went the CCWR (the Computing Centre for Water Research) – SA’s most recent chance at a decent system of data analysis!

Mark continues:

NEXUS sector representatives, particularly those from the business world, will see through this situation very fast. They will insist on the results of the data gathering, checking, infilling and storing becoming the property of the NEXUS “commons”. What is more they will insist on building on an information technology base which is solid in business terms and also which can handle the complexity of future needs. Such systems do exist, are extensively used internationally, have excellent support and are affordable. The days of the taxpayer footing the bill for systems that are inaccessible and which repeatedly charge us for sunk costs are nearly over.

My advice would be the following: use what we already know, and those residual skills that we still have access to, to build a solid foundation – a nexus built of brick, not straw.  Stop trying to define the problems, we know what they are and have done for decades.  Stop using people who know nothing about lake management to try and find out what to do.  We need to rebuild skills based on experience and to start addressing the problems with practical and pragmatic solutions.  Sleeves need to be rolled-up and work needs to be done.


5 Responses to South Africa’s absence from the world stage of lake management: Some facts

  1. An interesting analysis, and I hope limnology has a resurgence. Meanwhile, perhaps this would be a good place to advertise where, as you point out, DWA “numbers are simply compared against boundary limits” (comments, requests and criticisms are most welcome!):

    with an overview here:

    And for interest, some DWA reports from the 1980s and earlier:

    • Bill Harding says:

      MANY thanks for the update and pointing me to the summaries on your website. I must admit that I was not aware of these – an indication that I should visit the site more often. The information goes a long way to helping with strategic analysis of these data. Are you planning to augment this with some form of trend analysis per dam or region – this would go a long way to move from the “boundary limit” comparison to more of rate of change analysis (which is what many are looking for).

    • Bill Harding says:

      Here’s a more detailed reply to Mike’s request for suggestions:

      The existing data summaries are useful but they require a lot of time and effort to digest and to make comparisons, searching around in the figures with lots of colored dots – or having to go to the actual data for discovery purposes. I would like to suggest that the following might be a more useful approach in terms of understanding the overall situation and the direction in which it is moving – and be more in line with responsible reporting of the overall situation re eutrophication:

      1. What percentage of DWA dams fall into a specific category, lets say eutrophic? Importantly, what percentage of the total possible water storage do these represent? (this is important as while only a few dams appear to be affected, their aggregate volume is substantial).
      2. Express the detail for (1) by province, perhaps also by major river system (the working rivers?).
      3. On a dam by dam basis, provide a indication of the trend? For how long has the trophic state been static, increasing, decreasing etc. Several dams have been problematical for a long time.
      4. If the information is available, provide an idea of the catchment characteristics for each dam in the eutrophic and hypertrophic classes. Basic stuff like catchment area, land use by percentage, particularly and importantly, the number of sewage treatment works discharging into the catchment and the percentage of land use given over to agriculture and urban development. This information would be once-off provision and much of it already extractable from the national land use cover. RQS would have to add in what is known about the WWTWs.

      Ok, this deals with the lentic environment. The analysis will need to include the logic and express, for example, the distance below each eutrophic / hypertrophic dam for which the river(s) are enriched. The same goes for the upstream environments as many of the feeders, Hartbeespoort Dam for example, are eutrophic for considerable distances. This information could more easily be provided using a map, accompanied by a table of kilometers of rivers per province that are affected.

      Provision of the above would be a huge and positive step forward!

  2. The suggestions that Bill has made are very sensible, but do take the analysis to a higher level which would require much more manual intervention.

    I should first explain that the intention of the existing RQS data summaries is to do low-level analysis, showing what information is available on the RQS water database (and, by implication, what is not available). I use scripts written in R which I wind up and allow to wander through the database, sometimes for days or weeks on end, to aggregate the data into visualisations of various sorts. The hope is that users, such as academics and consultants, will become interested and dig further–in fact, several people have done so and have asked for the raw data in order to do more advanced analyses. This is the principle behind the initiatives in several countries.

    Suggestions 1 and 2 about quantifying the extent and distribution of eutrophication as a threat to water supplies are quite doable, with a bit of thought and digging around for dam capacities. Question 3 is a thorny one, and blanket trend analysis can be misleading, especially with very irregular time series. Long-term trends at most sites are masked by seasonal and medium-term variations, thus few monitoring station records show neat, linear trend lines: some exceptions exist, such as G1H013 on the Berg River. Detailed and time-consuming analyses are usually necessary, such as those described in various papers by van Ginkel et al. and van Niekerk et al. That said, I have now added links in the eutrophication data pages to time-series plots of the chlorophyll a and total phosphorus data.

    Suggestion 4, the placement of each dam in the context of what is going on in its catchment, has great potential for integrating information and gaining insight into how upstream activities and conditions define the status of the dam. This is aligned with what Mark Dent has been encouraging for many years, and is one reason why the DHI offer of free academic licences announced last year is so important. Using software such as MIKE Basin, candidates from honours to doctorate level can assemble the building blocks and try to understand what makes a catchment tick.

    • Bill Harding says:

      Mike Silberbauer has kindly and substantively responded to my suggestions – which were based on the general theme of going beyond just reporting numbers.

      I believe now, more than ever, that DWA/RQS needs to (apart from returning to the use of a meaningful and representative name such as HRI) play a part in re-educating the DWA as to the conditions prevailing in our surface waters, of which eutrophication is just one component. There surely needs to be a core analysis, however basic, that explains the status quo to the organization tasked with managing our waters. Those who wish to explore the data further can do so, but it is unlikely that their findings will become available in a format accessible to the greater DWA population and, for that matter, the general public.

      Re the trend analysis, this needs to be little more than a year to year reporting – i.e. for dam X, since the start of the dataset, show the years mesotrophic, eutrophic and etc.

      Lets hope that the DWA/RQS will provide Mike with the time and resources to add these proposals to their reporting framework!

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