How credible are the claims made by the Hartbeespoort Dam remediation project?

29 August 2012


Some members of the original Remediation Project team led by Bill Harding of DH Environmental Consulting. (left) Pirjo Kuupo (Finland), (right) Jeff Thornton (USA), with Garry MacKay (HWAG), standing in front of the pipe that transports sewage from Johannesburg North to the sewage works (2004).

This week I attended a very pleasing workshop tasked with seeking ways to broaden the understanding of eutrophication, or nutrient-enrichment, of South African reservoirs.  At this meeting I chanced across some documentation dealing with the reservoir-rehabilitation work being undertaken at the notorious Hartbeespoort Dam.

As the senior author of the Hartbeespoort Dam Remediation Plan, undertaken by my company between 2003 and 2005 and which set the scene for what has happened subsequently, I naturally have a professional interest in what is happening and what has been achieved at the dam.  However, as I and most of my project team colleagues were excluded from further involvement once we completed our work, we have to rely on the paltry amount of information, near-total lack of any reporting and much rumour, that has emerged from the project to-date.  This exclusion of an informed body of specialization conflicts with the importance of such interaction claimed in the article referred to below.

I was heartened to read a series of articles, published in the August 2012 edition (Vol 20 #7) of the journal of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (saice), dealing in glossy terms with various aspects of the project and its intentions and alleged achievements.  Since the current project started in 2005, this is the most articulate rendition yet of what is going on and clearly shows that there is now someone associated with the project who has a better-than-internet-obtained understanding of reservoir science and can do a decent editing job.  There are still some issues, such as a sustained inability to spell the most commonly-used word, phosphorus, and blatant and crude copying of diagrams sourced from trade documents such as those for the BioHaven range of floating islands, detract from the overall impact.

What is most concerning is that it has taken so long, seven years, to get to this point – a consequence of the novice (in terms of reservoir limnology) level of understanding of those who set themselves up to manage the project.  In truth, the same status could have been achieved in 24-36 months, had a more informed approach and associated synergies been adopted.  The Department of Water Affairs and the Implementing Agent, Rand Water, have to bear the blame for allowing such an important project to be managed by a non-specialist.  There are some hair-raising stories about what has occurred during the past 5-7 years and how the project has been managed.

On a positive note, the project team seems to have grasped the essentials of what is required, although they seem to ignore phasing issues and the need to do things in the right order.  Additionally, the ability to direct the response of the system by removing fish that were considered by the team’s fish biologists to feed demonstratively on zooplankton, has since been proven invalid.  The continued removal of fish for general management of the fishery, may impart some minor ecosystem and economic benefits, but only once the external loading challenge has been meaningfully addressed.  Claims to the effect that the alleged Integrated Biological Monitoring Programme is a first for South African dams, is completely untrue.  But then all of the articles are blatantly self-promoting.

The project makes a number of success claims, yet reference to the necessary reports and proof of concept, remain conspicuously elusive.  The scientists currently-involved with the undertaking do themselves no credit by not producing rigorously-interrogated data, especially when considered against the substantial amount of money that has been invested in the project thusfar.  I am surprised that as informed an agency as Rand Water has not insisted on peer-oversight via a Review Committee from the get-go.  After all, taxpayers money is being spent here – and millions of it.  The articles make claims as to how the lessons learnt and the ‘concepts developed,’ however dubiously, may be rolled out to other similarly-impaired reservoirs.  This highlights the fundamental aspect that the project team appear to have lost sight of:  you have to be able to prove, clearly and irrefutably, what you claim to have achieved.  In order to do so, you have to expose your findings and your interpretations to scientific scrutiny.  I would urge you, in the best interests of the need to place eutrophication management in this country on a sound footing, to begin to do so without delay.  If not then your claims remain little more than worthless hearsay.  There are those of us that are more than willing to help.  By now at least 10-15 peer-reviewed publications should have emerged based on the claims made.  I am not aware of any.

If your claims are credible and proven, then please tell us and the limnological world about them.  If not, then let us see if we can help!

Of course my comments will be taken as ‘sour grapes’ by the project team – although only openly amongst themselves by some of them who know me better.  I believe that most of them know what a flagship project this could have been, had it incorporated maximal skills input from the outset and not pandered to the personal whims of others.  It’s not too late to ensure that it does not happen again.

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