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By Jacques Breytenbach
The Federation for a Sustainable Environment this week handed over a petition to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) demanding the reinstatement of suspended water research scientist, Dr Anthony Turton.
The petition - signed by 1 463 national and international scientists, academics, representatives of non-governmental organisations and various political parties from 27 countries - was handed over to a legal representative of the CSIR this week.
The federation's chief executive Mariette Liefferink said the CSIR had to drop all charges laid against Turton that led to his suspension, unless more substantial reasons were given for their decision.
Turton was suspended in November because the presentation he wanted to deliver at a CSIR conference on South Africa's looming water crisis "was a significant departure" from the paper he based it on.
The CSIR deemed the presentation to be unsuitable because the "packaging" of the content included graphic pictures of execution by necklacing.
According to the CSIR, this would have portrayed the institution as being insensitive to the victims and audience.
Another reason given by the CSIR for Turton's suspension was that he made "inappropriate statements to the media".
These, according to Liefferink, are not valid enough reasons for Turton's suspension.
Among those who signed the petition were representatives of the ANC; DA; Freedom Front Plus; the South African Municipal Workers Union; the Endangered Wildlife Trust; the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation; the European Organisation for Nuclear Research; the South African Medical Association; as well as the universities of KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, the Western Cape, Johannesburg and Stellenbosch.
Liefferink said instead of "silencing" Turton by not allowing his presentation to be shown at the conference, it should have been made public to allow for debate on issues surrounding water in the country.
"Turton's claims that violence can break out because of a water crisis must be seen as relevant. When water was contaminated by platinum mines in the Limpopo, people resorted to violence as they did not have adequate drinking water, or water for their livestock."
In his presentation, Turton shows a child with birth defects in several pictures that suggest they were caused by the mother ingesting contaminated clay while she was pregnant.
"Turton did not blame the mines; he simply brought the health risks involved to the CSIR's attention.
"Many people, especially pregnant mothers and young children, who live in informal settlements close to gold mines like Gold Fields, Anglo Gold and Harmony Gold in the West Rand, consume this sediment for extra nutrients.
"Acceptable levels are 1mg uranium for 1kg of sediment. But what we find on the West Rand is 1 100mg uranium for 1kg of sediment. Turton only said this had to be investigated," Liefferink said.
Liefferink said Dann Sklarew, the technical adviser for International Waters, which is part of the United Nations Environmental Programme, reviewed Turton's paper and found nothing wrong with it.
Turton declined to comment on the petition.
A spokesperson of the CSIR confirmed that the council received the document.