South Africa’s Water Minister proposes a bottom-up solution

15 September 2014

South Africa has a water crisis which, to all intents and purposes, is not receiving the attention that it should.  Nonetheless, the newly-elected Minister of Water and Sanitation (in the not so old days, Water Affairs), Nomvula Mokonyane, has chosen to throw in her lot with this country’s embattled President – generating the headline “Use buttocks to defend Zuma“.

Surely, surely, we deserve better than this?  This particular ministry does not have the time for anything other than ‘water affairs’ – unless the President’s ‘fire pool’ now needs solar heating?  Or is this some form of ‘payback’ for the appointment?  Let me be quite clear here: it’s not about what the Minister said or how idiomatic the expression might be – it’s about sycophantic politicking by the head of what should be one of the most important departments in this country – yet just on a year ago was rated the second worst performing of all South African government departments.  In this same week the Institute of Security Studies has concluded what many already know, namely “South Africa is facing a potential water crisis and the current policies of the newly named Department of Water and Sanitation are not sufficient to address this problem”. 

As such, the Minister has more important things to be concerned about – or so one would think…



USA House of Representatives approves Harmful Algal Blooms Act

12 June 2014

Algal blooms impact on marine and freshwater resources worldwide (Photo: Bill Harding)

Algal blooms impact on marine and freshwater resources worldwide (Photo: Bill Harding)

Good news for research and management of noxious algae in the United States!  This week the US House of Representatives passed Bill S. 1254, which “reauthorizes the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act.  Harmful algal blooms (HABs) occur when colonies of algae grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds. The bill maintains and enhances an interagency program led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will be responsible for promoting a national strategy to help communities understand, predict, control and mitigate freshwater and marine HAB and hypoxia events; enhancing, coordinating, and assessing the activities of existing HABs and hypoxia programs; providing for development of a comprehensive research plan and action strategy, including a regional approach to understanding and responding to HAB events; and requiring an assessment and plan for Great Lakes HABs and hypoxia”. Read more »

Can agriculture and water resources exist in harmony in a densely-populated world?

4 June 2014

A Space for Water in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)

River Great Ouse in arable farmland. © Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

River Great Ouse in arable farmland. © Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A recent European report suggests that attempts to promote freshwater ecosystem conservation in European agricultural policy have so far proved largely unsuccessful.  The report, published in May 2014 by the European Court of Auditors (pdf), describes how priorities for freshwater ecosystem conservation outlined in the Water Framework Directive (WFD) have yet to be successfully integrated into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Read more »

Can an ecosystem service approach strengthen river conservation?

2 May 2014

River Ribble, Lancashire. Image RSJ

River Ribble, Lancashire. Image RSJ

Worldwide efforts to conserve river ecosystems are failing, and new approaches for stronger conservation planning are required.  This is the underlying context of a new editorial ‘Rebalancing the philosophy of river conservation’ by Mars [Managing Aquatic Ecosystems and Water Resources under Multiple Stress] scientist Steve Ormerod in Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.  Ormerod suggests that the ecosystem service approach can offer a valuable addition to current river conservation strategies, potentially providing convincing new arguments to help halt freshwater biodiversity loss. Read more »


6 April 2014

Unimpacted rivers and streams are increasingly threatened by the wastes of a growing population (Photo: Bill Harding)

Unimpacted rivers and streams are increasingly threatened by the wastes of a growing population (Photo: Bill Harding)

Uncontrolled enrichment of our water resources with wastewater and other pollutants is a big problem that is receiving very little attention.  This article examines some of the associated issues and the dangers of considering ‘living with the problem’, i.e. accepting it as a necessary evil rather than taking the obvious step of dealing with it.  The “Do Nothing” option, more commonly associated with protecting and conserving the environment, may seem attractive here – based on the argument that, because so much infrastructure is broken already, there is not enough money to do anything more than patch up what we have.

(This article was prepared by Bill Harding and Jeff Thornton of International Environmental Management Services Ltd., a US-registered, not-for-profit skills transfer company, specializing in water resource management.  Both are limnologists with an in-depth understanding of eutrophication and reservoir management in South Africa). Read more »

US Bill to tackle algal blooms has very low chance of being enacted

24 February 2014

Paint-like patterns formed by blue-green algae (Photo: Bill Harding)

Paint-like patterns formed by blue-green algae (Photo: Bill Harding)

US Senate Bill S1254, introduced on June 27th, 2013, was passed in the Senate on 12 February 2014 and now goes to the House of Representatives for enactment consideration.  The chances of this happening are considered to be low, in fact just 14%.  Apparently only 23% of bills that passed committee in 2011-2013 were enacted.

The Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act would expand a federal task force, require it to create a program to study the problem and an action plan to address it. The task force also would study the causes of hypoxia, or the depletion of oxygen in water. One cause of hypoxia is mass die-off of blue-green algae [Source]. Read more »

Is IWRM (Integrated Water Resources Management) sometimes a barrier to effective water resource management?

23 February 2014

Photo: Bill Harding

Photo: Bill Harding

The concept of Integrated Water Resource Management, nowadays commonly known by its acronym IWRM, has been around for a very long time.  Nowadays the IWRM paradigm, if we can call it that, dominates within political and institutional decision making processes.  But has this been healthy?  Has, in fact, the integration of specialisations across all water resource components been comprehensive enough to derive a truly holistic and, moreover pragmatic, IWRM protocol?  From my own experience I do not believe that this is the case.  In a paper just published in the International Journal of Water Resources Management, authors Giordano and Shah, present a cogent argument that echoes some of my concerns.

Their abstract reads as follows (you download the whole paper if you so wish): Read more »

Mini water wars: People who make decisions are often not the ones affected by water quality problems

19 January 2014

This arch on the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam admonishes Sine aqua arida ac misera agri cultura (Without water agriculture is withered and wretched). People as well! (Photo: Bill Harding)

This arch on the wall of Hartbeespoort Dam admonishes Sine aqua arida ac misera agri cultura (Without water agriculture is withered and wretched). People as well! (Photo: Bill Harding)

Many have speculated that future conflicts will be fought over water availability – for example as argued by Marq de Villiers in his book aptly titled “Water Wars: Is the World’s Water Running Out?” (Phoenix Press 1999).  Similar arguments are evident in Sandra Postel’s “Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last” (WorldWatch, 1999) or in Patrick Bond’s “Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest” (Merlin, 2002).  In the latter Bond correctly notes that “Water management offers [the] South African government and society possibly the most serious contemporary challenge“.  In 1997 the UN Comprehensive Assessment of Freshwater Resources concluded that “The world faces a worsening series of local and regional water quantity and quality [my emphasis] problems.  Water resource constraints and water degradation are weakening one of the resources bases  on which human society is built“.  All of these texts were published more than a decade ago, and similar postulates pre-date them.

Read more »

UK study finds that 74% of planners only have a basic understanding of the mitigation hierarchy

11 December 2013

A just-published report by the UK’s Association of Local Government Ecologists (ALGE) has concluded that the strategic conservation of biodiversity may be compromised by a lower than acceptable level of professional and technical competency within local planning authorities.  This lack of ecological competency by officials is not limited to the UK and is something many ecologists are frustrated by on a daily basis.  It places the issue of maintaining biodiversity and natural capital, in the long term, at some considerable risk.  On the dark side, it can provide a loophole by which conservation-critical land may be fragmented by or lost to development.

In the UK there is a “duty is to embed consideration of biodiversity as an integral part of policy and decision making throughout the public sector, which should be seeking to make a significant contribution to the achievement of the commitments made by Government in its Biodiversity 2020 strategy” .

The ALGE report summarised its findings as follows: Read more »

Trans-Canada puts social license before economics

20 November 2013

With apologies to Parker

With apologies to Parker

The concept of companies seeking social approval (= Social License) for their activities, particularly those that impact on the natural environment, is something that should be an ethical pre-requisite of good business governance – this as opposed to the more common practice of wilfully ignoring the fundamental need to avoid, rather than try to mitigate, impacts.

“Social license” generally refers to a local community’s acceptance or approval of a company’s project or ongoing presence in an area. It is increasingly recognized by various stakeholders and communities as a prerequisite to development. The development of social license occurs outside of formal permitting or regulatory processes, and requires sustained investment by proponents to acquire and maintain social capital within the context of trust-based relationships. Often intangible and informal, social license can nevertheless be realized through a robust suite of actions centered on timely and effective communication, meaningful dialogue, and ethical and responsible behaviour. 

Social License is not something governments can issue – it can only be granted by the public – this implying an involved and informed public sector that has the strategic implications of socio-economic development to heart.  It is a concept that is substantially intangible – hence it is likely to flourish on a local or regional basis, as opposed to becoming a national characteristic.  It implies that a nation should be more concerned about sustaining its natural capital than having to pay for the use of first class roads.

The Trans-Canada pipeline company is seeking just such approval for its Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project by re-routing its pipeline around two grizzly bear sanctuaries, rather than straight through them.  Bears are under enough threat from idiots with hunting rifles so they need all the protection they can get.