Playing roulette with our water

By Time of article published Oct 11, 2009

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South Africa's water crisis lies in the country's persistent denial that there is a problem, says Dr Anthony Turton, water expert.

"It lies in the pitiful fact that we are dooming future generations to the misery of poverty by failing to recognise that what we have done thus far can no longer be done in the future, simply because the assumptions on which previous solutions were based are no longer valid," he said.

Turton was last night honoured by the Habitat Council which presented him with its 2009 Habitat Conservation Award in recognition of the courage he displayed in publishing the state of South Africa's water resources, "thereby refusing to compromise his scientific integrity, and of his principled stance in defence of the right of the public to be informed of the truth".

The internationally acclaimed researcher was dismissed by the CSIR last year after being prevented from delivering a research paper at a CSIR conference in which he warned that the country faced a water crisis, and that because there was no surplus water, future economic development would be hampered. He had also said in the controversial paper that violence, similar to that experienced during the xenophobic attacks in May 2008, could be unleashed "in response to perceptions of deteriorating public health" as a result of declining water quality.

The Habitat Council praised Turton for "daring to tell the truth about the looming water scarcity".

In his acceptance speech, Turton used the analogy of a plane about to crash into a mountain to explain the water crisis, saying what people needed to realise was that "we are all sitting in this aircraft flying over the Himalayas and some of our technical systems have just gone down, so every second we waste trying to hide this one simple truth, is one second closer to us slamming into the mountain".

"We need a robust captain with a steady and unwavering hand on the stick. We need wise advisers of great integrity who can help that captain to make the rapid decisions he will need to make, in order to take evasive action. We also need the passengers to have faith in what is happening in the cockpit, as these evasive measures are taking place, because mass panic can hasten our demise. Yet, in final measure, we need to accept that the public... have a right to know what is happening, and so we must never fail them in this legitimate need," he said.

Turton told the Sunday Independent that the water crisis was "way bigger than any ordinary person will ever realise".

The impending acid mine drainage decant from the Witwatersrand Mining Basin would become South Africa's Chernobyl.

"To date the process has been characterised by finger pointing, denial, attempts to attack the credentials of the scientists who have been working on the problem and suchlike. This has now left us with no time to select a solution so the headless chicken approach is upon us and the public is about to be forced into an agreement that will see them drinking water that was radioactive and heavy metal contaminated yesterday, but is magically clean today."

Another problem was endocrine disruption, which had already seen an increase in the birth of inter-sexed babies in Limpopo where DDT was still being used to control endemic malaria. Even if the government decided to stop using DDT, it was so persistent that the country would be seeing its effects for decades into the future, he said.

Eutrophication, he said, was out of control with SA having some of the highest levels of microcystin contamination in the world. There was no antidote to microcystin toxin and was difficult to remove from drinking water so small rural areas would never manage the technological solution and would be "doomed to drink water that is known to be toxic".

In addition, the country was running into limits of strategic water storage. "We have no research into desilting dams. We have no meaningful research into alternative storage such as ground water recharge. We have simply failed to translate what scientists have known for decades... so now we have no solutions and are left at the vagaries of nature... It is Russian Roulette and soon the loaded round will be in the chamber when we pull the trigger," said Turton.

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