Diatom-based water quality monitoring in South-Africa. A state of the art technique in stasis.

20 June 2012

Dr Jonathan Taylor

This is an invited article prepared by Dr Jonathan Taylor, a member of the Diatom Assessment Protocol research team and Curator of the South African Diatom Collection.

Diatom-based monitoring allows for rapid and accurate determination of general and sometimes more specific water quality impacts.  In recent years a Diatom Assessment Protocol (DAP; Phases I-III) has been produced as a first step in the application of these techniques in South-Africa.  A large amount of time and effort was dedicated to the production of keys, methodology and a preliminary index based largely on European indices.  Coverage of the country was as extensive as possible; however large gaps exist in both taxonomic and ecological data, especially for the Western Cape.

Diatom indices have been embraced by the biomonitoring community in South Africa and form part of major monitoring programmes (SOR Reports, etc.).  Industry in particular has found the technique useful for impact and effluent monitoring.  However, there seems to be a misconception from funding and governmental agencies.  Yes, a working tool has been produced BUT the technique needs validation and the keys are regrettably sparse, even though they appear at first glance to be rather comprehensive.  The Western Cape in particular is problematic as little material exists on the endemic species found in this region and much of what work was done previously (e.g. Cholnoky’s W. Cape collections) has been lost.

Currently in South Africa we have the rather tenuous position of having a robust workable tool, which is largely untested and lacking any potential future development due to disinterest from governmental and funding agencies.  Current research needs include the following:

  • Beta testing of the new SA Diatom Index (based on the French SPI)
  • Resolution of (numerous!) taxonomic difficulties
  • Revision of previously described species (many hundreds of taxa)
  • Production of a South African diatom flora
  • Production of a new corrected expanded version of the brief guide to diatom species
  • Production of teaching material

Interestingly this work has been seen as vital in the DRC & Zambia and EU funding agencies have provided significant funds for the development of more comprehensive methods for bioindication in these countries, thus I have shifted my focus to these two countries and will be working far less in South Africa.  Researchers have to follow sources of funding – leaving the development of DAP in South Africa in relative stasis (with the possible exception of the work on wetlands).

One of the criticisms of the DAP is that there has been little capacity development.  During the DAP project many members of government agencies and other organisations were trained.  Some of these organisations have taken the technique forward, usually due to the efforts of a passionate individual.  Several consultancies now use the tools produced by the DAP projects as part of their core business and are in regular contact with DAP team members.  Thus, it is unfair to the DAP team members to blame them for a lack of capacity building.  All members of the DAP are to a large extent autodidacts (which makes one less tolerant of those who bemoan a lack of knowledge transfer via spoon feeding).  Diatom-based techniques need time input and dedication from the technician (who will fast become a specialist).  Six months of dedicated study will produce (if the person is interested and passionate) a specialist able to both identify diatoms and use the indices to great effect.  We as the DAP team would like to be in the position to support such individuals with taxonomic expertise and the production of material allowing for accurate diatom identification across the whole of Southern Africa but without the support of governmental and funding agencies researchers cannot justify their research focus, cannot build research teams, cannot fund students and their projects and this will ultimately lead to the stalling of the technique.  South Africa has recently lost a Doctoral graduate in the field of diatomology in part due to a cessation in funds; let us hope this does not set a trend.

In summary, with thanks to a specific funding agency and the support of my parent institution, we have a well-founded programme for the development of  diatom-based water quality monitoring techniques, all the required expertise and material (S.A. National Diatom Collection), clear research needs but no continued buy-in from government and funders.  Consequently,  diatom studies are now threatened and may reach a state of stasis – not for the first time in SA history .


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