Posted by: Andries Louw | 26 November 2008

The suicidal politics of water

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) suspension on Friday 21 November of internationally acclaimed political-and-water scientist dr Anthony Turton has been widely reported in the South African media over the past few days. Turton was prevented from delivering his keynote address, A Clean South Africa at the CSIR conference, Science real and relevant last week in which he would discuss South Africa’s looming water crisis.

The environmental justice forum Environment South Africa is running a petition against the CSIR’s suspension of dr Turton.

Why would a reputable scientific institution such as the CSIR suspend a top research fellow for “presenting the facts so that decision makers can make informed decisions” as Turton put it in an interview on Talk Radio 702 yesterday morning? He told presenter John Robbie that he was informed at the last minute that his paper was going to be withdrawn because it contained images that could be disturbing to sensitive viewers in the audience. Page 5 of his report contains a photo of the burning body of a victim of the recent xenophobic violence.

Turton said in the interview that he offered to withdraw the images but then he was told that his report contained certain facts that could not be sufficiently substantiated. He said he was surprised by this because he claimed that the report had been circulated internally for peer review well in advance. He went on to say that Nature, one of the top international science journals wants to publish his paper. Nature News quotes Christa van der Merwe, a CSIR spokesperson, as saying that the researcher “was not suspended for his views on the state of water in South Africa, or to silence him, but rather for bringing the council into disrepute.”

Reading different media reports it seems that Turton’s crime was that he spoke to the media despite internal avenues being available to him. In his interview with 702 he made it clear that he didn’t approach the media but that he merely answered questions when the media approached him.

It remains a mystery why the report was blocked in the first place if Turton offered to withdraw the images and if it had been circulated internally before the conference. What were the management of the CSIR thinking when they pulled the report – that the media would not pick up on it and approach the author? Did they expect him to remain silent about an issue that has the potential to trigger large scale social unrest because of a serious national health risk and a looming economic disaster because of the deteriorating state of our water infrastructure and our shrinking technical capacity?

Ironically the entire report, including the disturbing images, is still available on the research section of the CSIR website today, 26 November. Since Turton’s suspension his report has received much more publicity than it would, had he been allowed to deliver it at the conference. The images are now available for the nation to see, not just the select group of conference goers.

This leaves one wondering whether the CSIR didn’t receive instructions from some higher authority. The minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Mrs Lindiwe Hendricks told parliament on 11 March that there is no water crisis in South Africa. This speech came shortly after the electricity crisis which government officials, including minister Alec Erwin were also denying until the whole country was hit by power blackouts and load shedding.

If denying an electricity crisis is irresponsible, denying a water crisis is simply suicide, mass national suicide. Are we seeing the suicide politics of water in action? Tonight SABC news reported a water crisis in the Freestate province. Again it was a scientist drawing attnetion to the problem and government officials denying that there is a crsis. Now is the time to mobilise public opinion on this matter. Those of us who call ourselves Christians have a divine calling to be God’s representatives on earth according to the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1:26-28 and Genesis 2:15 we are mandated to be custodians of creation and the resources in it.

The latest news articles on this matter are: Water-crisis fears reach peak and Scientist offers ‘olive branch’



  1. I read the Sunday Times interview with the head of the CSIR and it turns out the suspension of Turton was because he was doing bad science, nothing else. He submitted a summary of what his paper was going to be about, but then his actual contents differed a lot from that summary…which in itself isn’t that much of a problem, except that his claims were unsubstantiated (based on what had happened to a single person).

    Initially I was angry that the CSIR had suspended him, but now I think they were right in doing so. All Turton has to do is to scientifically justify his findings. As I understand it, he hasn’t yet.

  2. The science underpinning the need for a National Water Quality Science, Technology and Policy program is robust (read the bibliography and then get those original reports). The paper did not say there would be violence, but it proposed a testable hypothesis that when the levels of expectation by society exceed the capacity of the state to deliver, then mass violence could be a result. A post-grad student can use this hypothesis and hopefully prove me wrong.

    The paper was also based on a legal and ethical dimension that has gone unnoticed by most. The precautionary principle dictates that if a scientist is aware that something “bad” is happening, then he or she should be cautious and act accordingly, even if there is still incomplete information about the “problem”. i.e. If you suspect you might be flying into a mountain but have not yet hit that mountain, a prudent approach would be to take precautionary measures to prevent the impact. I merely noted that some local communities believed that human health problems were arising from environmental contamination, so as a cautious scientist, I proposed a robust scientific program to verify if this is true or not. The blood and urine tests that I had seen, which I circulated among collegues, all suggested heavy metal contamination, the most likely route being the cultural practice of geophagia. The scientific principle of Occams Razor (the most logical explanation is also the most likely explanation) thus dictates that we need to do a high confidence study on human health – hence the Tooth Fairy Project that I proposed – which has now been silenced.

    There are legal ramifications arising from this whole series of events, so if one day there is a court case, then I at least can say that I did my very best to determine the truth and prevent further human health problems from ocurring. This means that I will not be the accused standing in the dock, but possibly a witness to the fact that we knew enough to know that in all probability there is a potential problem, so by failing to act some are possibly guilty of criminal negligence. In any event I am no longer relevant to this debate, because I have been factored out of it by the powers that be, so my work will either stand the test of time, or it will not. It is that simple. A fact is a fact is a fact. I cannot generate a fact if it is not real and by real it must be empirically verifiable. In the final analysis, I did the very best possible science that I was capable of, and fulfilled my leadership role to the very best of my capabilities. I can do no more. I will now be judged for that so my own opinions are now irrelevant, but my conscience is clear.

  3. Anthony, thank you for your detailed response. I really appreciate this. Your paper, which I read last year, still haunts me – not because I’m scared of violence but because I believe you have raised a few very important flags about the future of our water supply in this beautiful country.

    …and it seems that your warnings have been ignored, at least by some. Just today minister Lindiwe Hendricks again said that South Africa’s water is safe to drink.

    If I understand you correctly, you agree but you warn that we are heading for disaster if we don’t launch a comprehensive plan where role players from the public, private and academic sectors join efforts to secure our water future.

    I have a few questions:
    1) Am I right in saying that you still have opportunities to continue the debate and help find solutions? I see the Sowetan reports that you sat on a panel of experts discussing ways to avoid a water crisis less than 2 weeks ago:

    2) Who are other key role players (individuals & organisations) that are working on preventing a national water crisis?

    3) Do you agree with dr Kobus van Zyl’s assessment that the biggest single problem lies at local government level?

    4) Apart from using water sparingly, what can ordinary citizens do to help secure the future of South Africa’s water?

  4. I do not wish to become embroiled in an ongoing dialogue, simply because I only have 24 hours in a day and cannot do everything so I must prioritize. However I respect the questions you ask and I will respond to them in the best way I can in the time available.

    Question 1: Am I available? I am a 12th generation South African and have no intention of leaving this country. I was head hunted about 18 months ago and offered an Executive Directorship in a Canadian research institute at four times my local salary. I declined, because I believe in the future of my country, and my as yet unborn grandchildren (who will be 14th generation Africans). I also believe, as an old soldier, that it is unacceptable to abandon my “squad” when in a firefight. So the short answer is that I have no intention of leaving and every intention of doing my best to help solve this problem. I tried to do that in the framework of the various National Science Councils and that unravelled when I asked hard questions that some were unwilling to accept, so I will now do that in the private sector. I have now become a Director of a new company called TouchStone Resources and we are applying our mind to the development of what we call the Dream Team – the very best and brightest that we will manage as a team – and then offer our skills in partnership with whatever stakeholders choose to work with us. We are cherry picking all of the bright people who are being marginalized from technical posts in government, local government and the national science councils, and we are trying to give them a more secure work environemnt than they had before, in order to solve these complex problems. This company is about a new social contract between water, energy and socio-economic development. Watch this space…. Our website is under construction and you can read more as soon as it is launched.

    Question 2: Who are the other roleplayers? There are many. I am working closely with the DG of DWAF, and also the Minister. I have close professional relationships with both and those relationships are robust. These are good people that need our support. I have never pointed a finger of blame, because I believe this to be unhelpful in finding solutions. I am a solution-seeker not a blame-apportioner. Another major stakeholder is local government. This is more complex and I have less robust networks there, but the Dream Team we are assembling at TouchStone will have a person with this network to overcome this barrier. We hope to make formal announcements to this end shortly.

    Question 3: Is local government a barrier? Like it or not DWAF restructured itself out of the role of service provider to that of regulator. It went from technical to political. In so doing it lost all of the core skills of service provider, so even if the Cabinet now decided to change the Constitution and take local government powers away (centralizing control again), then DWAF would not be in a position to provide those services any better than at present. We therefore have to work with local governments and help them develop solutions. TouchStone Resources is developing a plan that it will shortly take to local government. We are waiting for the election to be over and are using that time to polish our plan. That plan is an innovative way of overcoming the engineering backlog by franchising the management of sewage treatment plants. This is a very complex area and TouchStone is busy actively acquiring the skills needed to develop this franching solution to a point where it can be rolled out as a viable option. Watch this space…..

    Question 4: How can citizens help? The most important thing is to become aware. This is why I have decided to support your Blog. You ask the right questions and you seem to be based on an ethic of respect. I can work with that. Secondly citizens must hold their elected officials accountable. We live in a vibrant young democracy and we are still baby-walking. We will fall often and scrape our knees on occasion. Accountability is what will make a difference.

    Finally, water is enormously complex and it is easy to confuse the uninformed. Water resources consist of water in dams and rivers. Water services consist of water in pipes and sewers. In general our water services are reasonable, specifically in the large metropolitan areas (the sewage plants are a disaster however). They are poor in the rural areas. However, almost everywhere our water resources are under severe pressure. So it is water in dams and rivers that is the problem. That is our national resource and that is sverely stressed. If we have a drought now we are in big trouble because the stress will merely increase exponentially and some aquatic ecosystems will go into shock and collapse such as has already happened in the Hartebeespoort and Olifants systems. Main cuplrits here are the following:

    1) Eutrophication. This arisies from enriched waters, normally due to partially treated sewage entering the system. This results in blue-green alge called cyanobacteria that produce a toxin called microcysitin that is chemically similar to rinkhals venom. The effects of long-term exposure to people, even at low concentrations, is as yet unknown. The be cautious we must assume the worst (read the bibliography of my banned paper – there is reference to cancer reported in other parts of the globe). Finland gets excited when microcystin levels reach 10 micrograms per litre and the USA when it reaches 60 micrograms per litre. RSA currently has an average in the worst five dams of 10,000 micrograms peaking at 16,000 micrograms per litre. This is deeply worrying for a number of reasons, so eutrophication becomes our main problem that we have to solve as a national problem. TouchStone Resources is focussing on this issue.

    2) Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). Because we have lost our national dilution capacity we are now recycling chemicals in the water. Some of these affect the development of the foetus in utero and can have impacts across generations – the foetus being affected now can manifest that defect when they produce children in the next generation. This is serious and complex. It is also emotive so it must be managed properly. Read my banned paper and specifically look at the bibliography where there is reference to a paper on urogenital defects in neonates. This is about babies being born with both male and female genitalia as a result of EDC’s. I am told that the same team is about to publish a new paper, but I am no longer in that inner circle so I cannot say when. Watch for that paper, because it will tell us if the problem is getting better or worse. There is also a paper that refers to reduced male fertility. We need to do more science on these EDCs because it is in the public interest that such work be done and made publically available. That is what I called “Science in the Service of Society” when I was still working in the National Science Council system. This is extremely important from a public health perspective and deserves to be supported by the public given the limited scientific capacity we have at national level to address the basic science needed to understand it better. This cannot be done commercially because it is unfundable from commercial funders. It can only be funded by public money – so demand that some of your taxes are spent on this vital issue.

    3) Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). AMD from abandoned gold mines is radioactive and contains a cocktail of heavy metals. To give an example of the magnitude, the decant out of Krugersdorp through the Krugersdorp Game Reserve into the Cradle of Humankind is around 35 megalitres a day. This is 10 olympic sized swimming pools a day. It is toxic and contains sulphates (salts) equivately to 5 large 18 wheeled trucks per day. Imagine five such trucks driving past you on the highway. That is what is flowing out of one hole in the ground in Krugersdorp daily. Now it gets scary. The total volume of AMD decant is estimated to be in the order of 345 megalitres a day. Much of this is still below surface, but the mining has stopped and the mine void is filling and within the next decade (probably less) this will all start to decant into the Klip River, the Blesbokspruit River and eventually into the Vaal River. This is serious stuff indeed. This cannot be done commercially because it is unfundable from commercial funders. It can only be funded by public money – so demand that some of your taxes are spent on this vital issue.

    So in essence our problem is less a water quanitity problem than a water quality problem, and that is more a water resource focus than a water services focus. As I say it is complex stuff, which is why I tried to build a robust scientific capacity within the national science council system to deal with this complexity. That is not to be so I now invest the same energies in building that capacity in a private comany called TouchStone Resources. Not all of that capacity can be developed in the private sector however, and much of it remains the core fucntion of national science councils. They cannot do this work without public support for that work The public can only support it if they know about the need for it, which is why I have taken the time to respond to your questions.

    I hope this helps.

  5. […] dr Turton’s full comments here. Educate yourself about water, don’t take it for granted that you can open a tap and drink […]

  6. Great to have a full response from Antony and a dialogue 🙂

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