Sanity Prevails: Hartbeespoort Dam programme canned

31 March 2013

Diorama of Hartbeespoort Dam at the upper cableway station (Photo: Bill Harding)

Diorama of Hartbeespoort Dam at the upper cableway station, seen from the south (Photo: Bill Harding)

The decision by South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs to terminate the Metsiame project at Hartbeespoort Dam is long overdue but to be welcomed nonetheless.  Regrettably, this only comes after many millions of rands and years of valuable time have been wasted – money that could have been infinitely better spent on this and other impaired South African dams.  The mere fact that the work was allowed to continue in the face of conflicting scientific evidence was cause for concern and highlighted the lack of appropriate project oversight.

Water Affairs has, laudably, announced that it will create a long-needed professional unit to deal with issues of reservoir management and eutrophication – something I have been recommending for many years. The Minister of Water Affairs is to be praised for finally taking this decision.  The appropriate management of our stored water resources must receive the highest level of informed attention and not be left to intransigent hobbyists to fiddle with, however well intentioned they may have been.

The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) is pulling the plug on its project to clean up the Hartebeespoort Dam, situated west of Pretoria. 

The project, called the Hartebeespoort Dam Integrated Biological Remediation Programme, is also known as ‘Harties metsi a me’ (my water). It began in 2006 and by 2011/2012, had already cost taxpayers R216,5 million. Measures to clean the dam included the removal and management of biomass accumulated in the dam, and food web restructuring and management through restructuring the basin fish population. 

They also included the implementation of projects to reduce the inflow of phosphates. The project, which owns over R5 million in assets and employs more that a hundred people, was being run by Rand Water on a contract basis. Linda Page, a spokesperson for the DWA, said the contract had not been renewed. “The department is in the process of creating its own remediation unit, which will take up responsibility for Hartebeespoort and other critical water sources. The transition of projects and assets will be smooth,” Page said. “It is envisaged that the department will be able to run it more efficiently than had previously been the case,” Page continued. 

It was not clear what motivated the department’s decision, but Harties has attracted controversy in the past. An example of this was when independent water expert Bill Harding and Emeritus Professor of Life Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Rob Hart, queried the data capturing ability of the programme’s principals in November 2012. Project leader Petrus Venter, however, said the programme had been making headway and that it had become a world leader in floating wetland technology. Chairperson of the Jukskei River Catchment Forum, Paul Fairall, expressed concern at the department’s handling of the project. 

“There was no public participation process, and a lot of unanswered questions. Who will be taking over? Do they have the skills or will they need training, and if so, how long will that take? What will happen to the 140 existing employees? What will become of the current assets? The list goes on and on,” Fairall said. The Jukskei River, one of the largest in Johannesburg, is the major source of the dam’s pollution, particularly of the phosphate load that has caused annual algal blooms in the dam since 2005. 

Page conceded that the department “has perhaps not communicated as effectively as it could have with certain stakeholders, giving rise to doubts and fears”, but insisted that the transition of responsibility for the health of the dam would be smooth and in the best interests of the users of its water.

Source: Farmers Weekly

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