A case of shooting the messenger?

Posted by Laura Grant on December 2, 2008
Posted in Green News

Water with a dense growth of algae. (Pic courtesy DWAF National Eutrophication Monitoring Programme)

THE fiasco at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) over the suspension of one of its senior researchers, Dr Anthony Turton is a public relations disaster for the national science council.

Dr Turton, an internationally respected scientist, was suspended for insubordination shortly after being told, at the last minute, that he could not deliver the keynote address on water quality at the CSIR’s Science Real and Relevant conference in Pretoria.

Dr Turton was to give the talk, entitled “Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-Makers Need to Know About and How the CSIR Should Respond”, on Tuesday November 14, but was told the day before, that it had been pulled from the conference. He told the Cape Times:

“I was told it had been pulled, and I was instructed not to be on the premises. I was given three different reasons by three different people.”

There has been much speculation in the media that the paper was withdrawn in an attempt to gag Turton and “shield the government and [the CSIR] from criticism”. According to one report, Turton’s presentation was withdrawn partly because it was potentially offensive to “members of the liberation movement”.

It has all been said before
Last Thursday, at a media conference, Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, the CSIR’s president and CEO, denied that the CSIR had tried to gag Dr Turton. “There was nothing profound in the [research] paper, it has all been said before by scientists and even parliamentarians,” he said.

The CSIR said it wasn’t Dr Turton’s report Dr Sibisi had a problem with, it was his slide presentation and, in particular, images he had used in it that were “inappropriate”, such as of a “necklacing” (an execution using a burning tyre).

Another visual mentioned by the CSIR was of a child with a birth defect with the statement that she lived in an area affected by mining waste. This made a “strong inference from a single data point”. According to the CSIR, this “showed poor links between cause and effect”.

Previously, Dr Turton had told the media that he had offered to make changes to his paper, but that this was turned down. The CSIR said that there wasn’t time to make the necessary changes. (See Sunday Times Q&A with Dr Sibisi)

Inappropriate statements to the media
According to the CSIR, the reason why Dr Turton was then suspended from his position in the council’s natural resources and environment unit was because he had made “inappropriate statements to the media” and had brought the council into disrepute.

But it seems that Dr Turton did not go to the media originally with the story that his presentation had been pulled from the conference. This was done by an environmental activist who was concerned that it was an attempt to suppress the information in Dr Turton’s report about the looming water crisis in South Africa. The paper had reportedly been circulated to scientists, NGOs and others about two months before the conference.

Surely to withdraw Dr Turton’s presentation from the conference at the last minute and then ban him from the premises is a drastic step to take against a senior researcher. And, it is no way to treat a respected scientist. It’s little wonder that Dr Turton has been trying to defend his reputation as a scientist in the media.

In an interview he did that’s posted on Zoopy.com (to view click on image above), Dr Turton says that it was never his intention to bring the CSIR into disrepute and that he, in fact, holds the organisation in the highest regard.

The issue even reached Parliament, where the National Council of Provinces (Parliament’s second chamber) voted on Friday in favour of Dr Turton’s reinstatement to the CSIR, according to the Cape Times.

Widespread support
Dr Turton has had widespread support in the media. A petition calling for him to be reinstated in his position, initiated by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, a local NGO, has been doing the rounds, reportedly gathering “hundreds of signatures”. And the Cape Times has reported that a US environmental scientist has said that he is drafting an international petition of scientists and researchers in support of Dr Turton.

There have also been calls for the CSIR to hold an urgent internal inquiry into what one article described as the “incoherent and authoritarian behaviour” of elements of its own management. The South African National Editors’ Forum said that it suspected the CSIR’s action against Turton was motivated by political considerations and it also called for an independent inquiry.

Last week Dr Turton extended an olive branch to the CSIR. He said he didn’t like being in the limelight and wanted to get back to work as “a humble scientist”. But the CSIR obviously did not take up Dr Turton’s offer because at the weekend there were reports that he has asked his lawyers to “seek an amicable termination of his employment relationship”.

This is bad news indeed. Surely the CSIR cannot afford to lose one of its top scientists where there is already a severe shortage of qualified people working on the country’s water issues. It needs to attract – and keep – the best scientists in the country. After the dramas of the past fortnight, will it be able to do that?

SA’s LOOMING WATER CRISIS: WHAT THE REPORT SAID
Here are some of the main points in Dr Turton’s paper, “Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-Makers Need to Know About and How the CSIR Should Respond”.

  • South Africa has no more surplus water. The country receives an average of 497mm/year of rain, compared to a global average of 860mm/yr. And 98 percent of the water capacity has already by allocated. There is very little surplus. Water scarcity is a fundamental constraint on development and social wellbeing.
  • South Africa has lost its dilution capacity which means that pollutants and effluent streams will need to be treated to ever-higher standards before being discharged into communal waters or deposited in landfills.
  • All South Africa’s cities and major centres of economic development are on watershed divides, rather than near rivers, lakes or the seashore as is the global norm. This means that major engineering and technology are needed to move water to these centres, and liquid waste effluent from the cities degrades the water quality.
  • South Africa has a history of violence and disrespect for human rights, and the country’s science is embedded in this legacy. Water scarcity could lead to social conflict. Turton used images of this year’s xenophobic attacks to illustrate the violence that might happen if one day water becomes scarce enough to fight over.
  • South Africa lacks the scientific, engineering and technical capacity to deal with looming water problems.

On this Turton wrote:

“…we have mobilized masses of Technical Ingenuity to move water from distant river basins and mine minerals from ever greater depths. But these have caused second-order problems – the so-called revenge effects – such as loss of ecological integrity in aquatic systems arising from inter-basin transfers and increased levels of pollution from radionuclides, heavy metals and sulphates arising from mining.”

This Technical Ingenuity has helped us develop our national economy despite water and energy constraints. But now we have new challenges, says Turton. The demand for technical ingenuity now far outweighs the supply and this affects the country’s ability to solve pressing scientific problems.

  • The CSIR’s funding model, which now relies on private contracts more then government funding, has had a “catastrophic effect on our national [scientific, engineering and technical] capacity”.

He adds:

“Significantly, we cannot import those technical solutions because, in the case of microcystin as an example, there are few other places in the world where there are similar levels of toxin in the national water resources (China is an exception), so there is simply no need in most countries to solve this specific problem with the same urgency that we are confronted by.”

  • A lack of investment in operation, maintenance and skilled human capacity will result in the collapse of the country’s water infrastructure.
  • A significant proportion of South Africa has no civil engineering professional support in a local authority, particularly in rural areas.
  • There are more certified professional engineers nearing retirement than there are entering the profession. There is a gap in the age group 35 to 49, which is the group most affected by affirmative action employment rules – many of these engineers have left the country.
  • Incentives are not in place to attract and retain qualified engineers to research councils, national and provincial governments.

Particular water quality challenges

  • Acid mine drainage – SA has a legacy of heavy metal and radionuclide contamination in rivers flowing out of most gold mining areas, wrote Turton. Coal mining also causes AMD. South Africa has never done a high-confidence study of off-mine populations to determine what the impact has been from chronic exposure to heavy metals and radionculides, he wrote.
  • Eutrophication – South Africa is faced with levels of eutrophication that are “almost unprecedented globally”, wrote Turton.

Eutrophication can result in excessive growth in algae (cyanobateria, or blue-green algae) and aquatic weeds (such as water hyacinth).

The load of microcystins in our water, which are produced by cyanobacteria, is “among the highest in the world”, says Turton. We need to know if microcystins are causing human health problems, specifically in communities that are immune-compromised (such as HIV).

  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals in our water supply are a growing problem in South Africa. Our dilution loss means that EDCs are being recycled without being removed.
  • As are partially metabolised medication – “we are gong to be seeing higher levels of antiretrovirals in our rivers, which by implication means that these complex chemical compounds will be entering the human population over time, either through the drinking water stream or via produce that has been irrigated with contaminated water. “Nowhere else in the world is there a coincidence of loss of dilution and high levels of ARV use as in this country.”
  • We also need to understand the exact linkages between climate change and cyanobacteria and whether climate change will nudge any of our aquatic ecosystmems into catastrophic collapse.

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