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Council for Scientific and Industrial Research(CSIR) suspends Dr Anthony Turton November 25, 2008

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Council for Scientific and Industrial Research(CSIR) suspends Dr Anthony Turton

Professor William Alexander

Professor William Alexander

By Professor Will Alexander

Via Email, November 22, 2008

Dear all,

Today is a sad day for science in South Africa. According to headlined articles in yesterday and today’s newspapers, Dr Anthony Turton, of the CSIR has been suspended and told to evacuate his office. This is because of a proposed presentation that he was due to make at a CSIR conference. The title of his presentation was to have been A clean South Africa.

I have not seen the draft presentation but I assume that it was on the same lines as his TV presentation in the 50-50 programme three weeks ago, in which he painted a bleak picture of the deteriorating quality of South Africa’s water supplies particularly in the Highveld region. The direct cause identified by the programme presenter was the failure of the smaller municipalities to treat sewage effluent, which was then discharged directly into the nearest river. Their actions were in turn the consequence of equipment failure and lack of technical staff.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) was also held partially to blame because it is responsible for the health of our river systems. In my position as Manager of Scientific Services in DWAF prior to 1985, I was directly involved in early water resource management policy decisions. Even then it was appreciated that we could expect water quality problems by the end of the century due to increasing treated effluent discharges into our river systems.

It was also appreciated that conventional effluent treatment would not solve the problem. This was the motivation for the construction of large scale experimental works in Windhoek and Pretoria for producing potable water from sewage effluent. The CSIR was involved in this research.

It is clear that the CSIR’s suspension of Dr Turton and its instruction that he should leave his office and surrender his computer and Internet linkage was unnecessarily drastic. It is also a severe blow to the integrity of the CSIR.

I have no wish to create any further difficulties in this situation. I am more than willing to appear before any disciplinary committee appointed by the CSIR. I am one of the very few experienced and fully independent scientists in this field left in South Africa.

I have repeated my e-mail that I addressed to Dr Turton last night to his CSIR Internet address that will not reach him.

Please pass this on to anybody who has a constructive interest. I sincerely hope that I will be able to assist in the solution of this very difficult and emotional problem.

Kind regards,

Will

=====================

Email sent to Dr Turton last night 21 November 2008

Dear Dr Turton,

South Africa’s water resources

I was very disturbed to read about the rejection of your presentation in this morning’s newspaper.

I have been directly involved in water resource development and research for the past 30 years. I also had strong links with the CSIR’s research bodies during that time. I have attached an old CV that describes some of these linkages.

I have no doubt whatsoever that South Africa is about to enter a critical period related to both quantity and quality of our water supplies. My rising concern in recent years is that the authorities do not seem to appreciate the almost insurmountable problems that lie ahead. Their solution requires advanced multi-disciplinary studies.


The last thing that we need is accusations of political motives when we bring them to the attention of the authorities.

If it will help in any way I am quite prepared to come across to the CSIR and discuss the issue with anybody in authority who has an interest. The discussions can be in confidence if they so wish.

Feel free to pass this on if you wish.

Kind regards,
WJR Alexander, Professor Emeritus, Department of Civil and Biosystems Engineering,

University of Pretoria

W J R ALEXANDER : EXTRACTS FROM CURRICULUM VITAE [UP TO 1996!]

1970 – 1984

On my transfer to the Planning Division I was directly involved in the planning of the Mgeni River system (Albert Falls Dam) and the early stages of the Tugela-Vaal project. My subsequent appointments as Chief of the Division of Hydrology and Manager of Scientific Services included responsibility for all the hydrological and geohydrological activities of the Department of Water Affairs including the determination of storage-yield relationships, flood-frequency relationships, flood routing along the Vaal and Orange River systems, and the acquisition, evaluation and dissemination of hydrological data.

Three major investigations undertaken under my direct control during this period were on the hydrology and morphology of the Mkuze swamps, and the floodplains of the Pongolo and Gamtoos rivers.

Research co-ordination 1970 – 1984

During this period I was directly responsible for the collection, processing, publication and interpretation of routinely measured data including river flow, rainfall, open water surface evaporation, sediment transport, groundwater and water quality. This constitutes the largest database of routinely measured environmental data in South Africa. I was also responsible for all research activities within the Department. The results were published in the form of technical reports targeted at practitioners, and in the proceedings of specialised conferences. There was no incentive to publish in recognised scientific journals.

I was also the Department’s representative on a number of research coordinating bodies. These included the CSIR’s National Programme for Environmental Sciences (NPES) and its Inland Waters Ecosystems Committee which I chaired. The NPES was chaired by the president of the CSIR and played a major role in the identification of multi-disciplinary research needs in South Africa and the financial support for the research. From this time onwards, academic researchers played an increasing role in environmental studies, and they had the full co-operation and assistance of senior scientists and practitioners in the public service. At one stage we were informed that the continued existence of the South African Journal of Science was at risk due to financial difficulties. We protested vigorously, and ways were found for overcoming the difficulty.

Another appointment was on the CSIR’s steering committee for the study of the deterioration of river estuaries and consequent environmental damage and reduction of tourist potential. The general view of researchers and the public was that the damage was caused by poor farming practices in the catchments, but this conclusion was unsupported by research, observations or measurements. I pointed out that in general, agricultural practices reduced the volume of sediment reaching the river systems. The degradation of estuaries was principally due to the destruction of riverine vegetation, which in turn changed the equilibrium profile of rivers and their floodplains. I based my views on my earlier studies in the eastern Cape; observed data on sediment transport in rivers; and convincing photographic evidence of the effects of the destruction of riverine vegetation on the redistribution of sediment within the river channels and adjacent floodplains.

Another example, also in the 1970s, arose from my appointment to the Natal Parks Board’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Lake St. Lucia. As a result of the then prevailing severe drought, the lake became hyper-saline and once again this was blamed on agricultural and other development in the catchment. It was feared that the damage was likely to be irreversible.

The word ‘fragile’ was frequently used to describe the functioning of ecosystems at that time, whereas my own observations and studies indicated that natural ecosystems were inherently robust, and that the postulated effects of human activity were of the same order as those of natural variability. I shared the minority view that the lake would recover after the drought and would not suffer permanent damage.

Nevertheless, public pressure mounted. The Parks Board decided to excavate a canal through the upstream Mkuze Swamp to tap the freshwater lakes within the swamp, and extend the canal through to the Mkuze River upstream of the point where it entered the swamp. I expressed serious reservations, not only because the project would not tap sufficient fresh water to reduce the salinity of St. Lucia, but also that it could cause serious damage to the swamp ecosystem, particularly in the unstable (as different from fragile) river delta area. A member of the Parks Board staff (Mr van Niekerk) designed and built an airboat driven by an aircraft propeller and ex-army tank engine that could force its way through the reeds and swamp vegetation. I had a tracked amphibious vehicle that could negotiate any terrain. I gathered all available professional and technical staff and we carried out a topographical survey of the delta area; surveyed cross-sections and water depths within the swamp; and monitored the complex movement of water flowing through the swamp using tracer dyes. This was the most comprehensive study of a major swamp system undertaken in South Africa, but the results and reports remain buried in the archives of the two organisations. The drought was broken and the ecosystem recovered more rapidly than any of us had anticipated.

1985 to 1996

I retired from the Department of Water Affairs in November 1984 and was appointed Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Pretoria in January, 1985. In addition to my teaching commitments, I continued with applied research in the fields of river behaviour, reservoir sedimentation, water resource development, widespread, severe floods and flood risk reduction measures all with emphasis on direct application. To this end I have presented annual courses which have been attended by some 1700 participants from South Africa and other southern African countries including Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

I am a member of a consortium of consulting engineers appointed by the Department of Water Affairs to prepare a draft National Flood Management Policy.

I was a member of a team appointed by the South African National Committee for Large Dams to revise the guidelines for dam safety.

I was commissioned by the South African National Committee for Large Dams to produce a handbook on Southern African Flood Hydrology (1990). This is the standard reference work on floods in South Africa. More than 500 copies have been distributed to date, and the book is out of print. I have been requested to produce a revised edition.

In 1993 I published another book on Flood Risk Reduction Measures. This contains a chapter on rivers and their floodplains.

I have written more than 100 professional reports, papers and articles to date. Some of these have been published in national and international journals, and others in the proceedings of national and international congresses and symposia.

I developed a computer-based National Flood Advisory Service in 1992, and computer-based Flood Watch Systems for local authorities and isolated communities. These two projects were financed by the Water Research Commission.

In May 1994, I was a member of the official South African delegation to the United Nations conference on natural disasters in Yokohama, Japan.

In February 1996 I was appointed a member of the United Nations’ Scientific and Technical Committee on Natural Disasters.

[ I can bring this up to date if required.]

Comments»

1. Carl Muller - November 26, 2008

It is my prayer that Almighty God will protect us. Only He can change seasons and appoint leaders and princes.
He removed Mbeki in one stroke.
Dr Anthony Turton, may you be prosperous beyond words in peace.
If anything of what you warn against happens. They will have it on their heads, you can then rest.
Concerned citizen.
Carl Muller

2. Jeremy Hawson - November 28, 2008

I have known Dr Turton since 1971, both as a friend and as a business partner. Since the early 80’s he has dedicated himself to studying, very often under difficult circumstances, to become one of the world’s leading authorities on water and its influence on people.

I currently live in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where municipal tap water, if you are lucky enough to have it, is too dangerous and filthy to drink with the result that one has to drink bottled water. This might seem an obvious solution but the resultant pollution and contamination from the empty plastic bottles of rivers and the sea is a disaster in itself.

So what if Dr Turton uses shock tactics to galvanize fellow lethargic South Africans into action before it is too late. Sara’s comments of “the truth in this case will be able to speak for itself” on this blog flies in the face of this whole issue – someone seems to be trying to hush up the truth, even the Minister has admitted that 60% of municipalities are understaffed in their water departments. What will it take for people to wake up and realise that resources or rather the lack thereof causes friction in society. We South Africans should realise this by now. When the chips are down people will look after their own interests. That is the time when the truth generally emerges but always a little too late for remedy.

Dr Turton, don’t be put off by this hiccup – you have faced far bigger challenges in your past – and continue your good work that began in the good old days of the Muldersdrift se Loop.

3. Stephen - November 28, 2008

Dr Anthony Turton is a true scientist. He’s published a report which points out a deep infrastructure failure in South Africa today. There was no ‘axe to grind’ just a statement about public safety based upon a scientific analysis. I’m sure he had no idea that this storm would develop but he is still willing to speak on the issue which also demonstrates his bravery.

In 1850s London, Dr. John Snow fought with the establishment to demonstrate that it was water and not the miasma (dirty air) that was causing a massive outbreak of cholera in the city. However, despite this he managed to work his way up to becoming one of Queen Victoria’s physicians even though he had upset a lot of powerful people along the way.

Hopefully in the future, Dr. Tutton will be embraced by the South African establishment in the same way.


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