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Dr Anthony Turton resigns from CSIR December 2, 2008

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Dr Anthony Turton resigns from CSIR

Professor William Alexander

Professor William Alexander

By Professor Will Alexander

Via E-mail, November 29, 2008

Response to last Saturday’s email.

Dear Prof ,
What a shocking business about Tony whom I know very well for many years. There is no more committed, loyal, knowledgeable, wise and dedicated professional than him. I am astonished.

In my long professional career (now approaching 60 years) this is the first time that I have witnessed a dispute that led to the resignation of a senior scientist from a well respected public institution. I find myself in a very awkward position. I still have strong loyalty and respect for the two principal organisations, but I have even stronger responsibilities to the poor and disadvantaged communities in South Africa. I also have strong views on academic freedom and scientific integrity.

I fully agree with Dr Turton’s views. I cannot agree that his actions were sufficient to lead to his reprimand and eventual resignation. My views are supported by the many adverse reactions reported in the media during the past week. In particular I believe that the CSIR’s image as an impartial body has been irretrievably tarnished by its own unnecessary and unjustifiable actions.

Dead fish in the Vaal River. (Beeld 29 November 2008)

Dead fish in the Vaal River. (Beeld 29 November 2008)

Family outing on the Vaal River (1941). WJRA second from right. Swimming in the river is no longer encouraged.

Family outing on the Vaal River (1941). WJRA second from right. Swimming in the river is no longer encouraged.

The most important aspect is that the CSIR and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry do not seem to appreciate the extreme importance and urgency of the present situation.

Now is not the time for more research. The causes and consequences of the rapidly deteriorating quality of the flow in our rivers have been known and addressed since the 1970s. They are well documented in the files of the two organisations as well as in conference and symposia proceedings.

There is nothing new to be learned. I was directly involved in the research at that time. The Department of Water Affairs’ Hydrological Research Institute at Roodeplaat Dam was my responsibility. We addressed this problem together with the CSIR and limnological researchers at several universities. Our research reports and the actions taken to minimise the consequences are detailed in the files of the two organisations.

We are now witnessing the consequences of the subsequent lack of action to address these issues. During the past few days the news media have produced many photographs (fortunately without the nauseous smells), of debris and dead fish in our rivers and dams. The reason for these occurrences is the onset of high summer temperatures, decreased river flows, and consequent high concentrations of pollutants.

This is only the beginning. When (not if) the regional droughts begin to bite, the conditions will deteriorate rapidly even further. Questions will be asked. They will include reasons for Dr Turton’s suspension and resignation.


Xenophobia

One of the principal concerns of the CSIR about Dr Turton’s proposed presentation was the inclusion of a photograph of a man being burned to death during a xenophobic attack. I reproduced a similar photograph in one of my earlier memos. The objection was to Dr Turton’s linkage with possible deteriorating water quality and availability in future.

I undertook voluntary studies in Alexandra in the early 1990s. The living conditions of the people within the township were heartbreaking. I had personal experience of non-violent xenophobia in Alexandra at that time. I have no doubt at all that South Africa could experience a repeat of these outbreaks in the future as unemployment increases resulting from the deteriorating economic situation. These disturbances will be exacerbated when droughts force rural dwellers to migrate to the cities in search for work.

Where race relations become unstable, even minor events such as water supply problems could easily trigger outbreaks of violence. It would be very foolish to ignore this possibility, let alone dismiss it. Above all, this possibility should not be withheld from the authorities and the public no matter how disturbing and embarrassing it may be.

Wake-up call

Dr Turton’s resignation and the situation surrounding it, should be a wake-up call to all those directly and indirectly involved in water resource development and management in South Africa.

• Our water supplies are rapidly approaching the limits of exploitation.
• The quality of the remaining water supplies is rapidly deteriorating.
• South Africa continues to lose experienced technical and professional staff.
• The present episode will discourage those who may otherwise consider undertaking research in this difficult field.

There is no reassuring evidence that these very serious national problems are appreciated, let alone being addressed. My repeated calls for high level, multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional coordination have been ignored.

Please consider the likelihood of the simultaneous occurrence of the following, and the probable consequences, within the next 12 months.

• A severe country-wide drought.
• The adverse effects on subsistence farming, agricultural production and water resources.
• Increasing water restrictions on all users including Eskom’s power stations.
• Unemployment increasing.
• Malnutrition and disease increasing.
• Poverty increasing.
• Migration of the rural poor to the cities.
• Civil disturbances increasing including xenophobic attacks.
• Rising ‘I told you so’ responses from climate alarmists and environmental pressure groups.

The Department of Water Affairs and the CSIR are going to be in deep trouble if they continue with their present policies of acknowledging that a problem exists and doing nothing more than appointing a research team to investigate it. This will be seen as nothing more than a face-saving, delaying tactic. All the necessary research reports and action taken to minimise the consequences will be found in the files of the two organisations as well as in the proceedings of conferences and symposia.

As a matter of interest these are some of my reports related to this subject. They do not include the many reports and correspondence in the departmental files.

1969. Present and estimated future flows into and from the Vaal Barrage system.

1970. The augmentation of the yield of the Vaal River system.

1972. Proposed programme for monitoring pollutants in the water environment.

1973. Reservoir operation during drought periods.

1974. The exploitation of South African rivers and estuaries.

1974. Water resource management in semi-arid regions.

1974. Environmental problems associated with water resource development.

1976. Hydrology and the water environment.

1977. The conservation and optimum utilisation of our water resources.

1979. The decade ahead — water and food.

1980. Mineralisation of South African rivers.

1981. Modelling complex environmental processes.

1981. A review of the water resources research needs in South Africa.

1981. Wildlife conservation and water resource management.

1982. Water requirements of the Pongola floodplain system, and recommended operating rules.

1982. Managers, engineers and the water environment.

1983. Latest techniques in planning of surface water resources in South Africa.

1983. Possible drought alleviation measures.

1984. Some problems related to the future supply of water to the PWVS region.

1984. Anatomy of drought.

1984. Efficient utilisation of surface water resources in South Africa.

1984 The assurance of municipal water supplies in the future.

1985. Factors governing the optimal management of water resources in the semi-arid and arid regions of southern Africa.

1986. Threats to the Mkuze River floodplain.

1987. The use of microcomputers in water resource modelling.

1988. Hydrology of the Pongola River ecosystem.

1988. Experiences in water resources education and training in sub-equatorial Africa.

1988. Dimensionality, uncertainty and scale in water resources research.

1989. Water resources management — a look into the future.

1989. Decision-making under uncertainty.

1990. Environmental models.

1990. Computer models for the detection of environmental changes.

1991. Conservation of the water environment — is it attainable?

1991. Hydrological aspects of widespread rainfall events.

1991. Analytical methods for equitable water resource development including the conservation of the water environment.

1993. Flood risks in informal settlements in Soweto and Alexandra.

1993. Multi-criteria optimisation in water resource development.

1994. Water resource development into the 21st century.

1994. Comments on aspects of the proposed water supply and sanitation policy.

1996. Possible ecological consequences of the abstraction of water from the Zambezi River upstream of Victoria Falls.

1997. Predictability of widespread, severe droughts and their effect on water resource development and management.

1999. Risk and society – an African perspective.

2002. Floods, droughts, poverty and science.

2004. Floods, droughts, sunspots and wheat prices — the development of a drought prediction model.

2005. Development of a multi-year climate prediction model.

2007. Linkages between solar activity, climate predictability and water resource development.

2008. The likelihood of a global drought in 2009-2016.

Ignorance is no excuse

The following are a few short extracts from my early publications that demonstrate the urgent need for multi-institutional and multidisciplinary studies. There can be no excuses for the lack of realisation of these requirements by today’s authorities and research institutions.

1972. Environmental pollution has become an international problem. However, trends in the effect of this pollution and advanced warning of the approach of dangerous and possibly irreversible situations will have to be based on a sound national monitoring programme.

1974. In the detection of environmental changes it is very difficult to differentiate between natural and man-induced environmental changes when the natural conditions are highly variable and the interactions within the environment are complex.

1974. The natural water resources of South Africa will approach full exploitation soon after the turn of the century. Water supply projects will have an increasing impact on the environment.

1981. Policy makers and their professional advisers are increasingly being confronted with having to make decisions relating to the consequences of the exploitation of natural resources. Rational decisions must be most based on quantitative predictions of the responses of the environment to the proposed activity.

1991. The concept of increasing development being sustained by an ecosystem maintained in its pristine condition is an unattainable objective. Efforts have to be directed towards containing environmental degradation and promoting more efficient utilisation of the water resources within the major constraint of increasing resource utilisation. The solution to the problem requires not only a multidisciplinary approach by scientists and engineers but also interaction with water users and political decision-makers.

There is absolutely no excuse for the South African authorities and national research institutions to ignore these basic requirements that were known, recorded and expressed decades ago.

Mail & Guardian 24 November 2008

Mail & Guardian 24 November 2008

This is a very important document as it goes to the very heart of scientific endeavour and the role of science in our complex society. Please feel free to pass this on to anybody who has a constructive interest in this subject.

Comments»

1. Fair Play - January 25, 2009

What is Dr. Anthony Turton doing now? It seems like he was treated unfairly by his institution. What a big mistake to chase away a scientist who was trying to draw attention to the plight of an essential commodity like water. It is not surprising. This trend of interfering with academic rights is not recent and does not look like is going to stop but is going to contribute to a loss of good scientists who are trying to survive a hostile environment in more ways than one.

2. Kobie Hyman - February 16, 2009

I am also interested to know how to contact Dr Turton. Furthermore, I would be interested to know more about the water industry in SA. Would it help to provide boreholes for the poor and rural people of South Africa? What if all the groundwater becomes contaminated?


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