Sunday, November 23, 2008

If the truth hurts

... shoot the messenger. Not only our water supply, but virtually the entire SA infrastructure is going to pieces. The rationale? Eish, if it ain't broke don't fix it. The concept of maintenance is also foreign to our SBG...

An internationally acclaimed water-resource expert has been suspended from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research after sounding the alarm bell on a looming water crisis in South Africa.

The move followed just days after the CSIR barred the top scientist from delivering the keynote address at its biennial conference in Pretoria on Tuesday. The council said certain images and unsubstantiated claims in his presentation had caused concern.

The hard-hitting presentation by Dr Anthony Turton warned of an impending water quality disaster that had the potential to spark public violence.
He included graphic images of service delivery protests and xenophobic violence and asked if such anger could be unleashed in response to deteriorating public health as a result of declining water quality.

“If I’m guilty of anything,” Turton said yesterday, “I’m guilty of being a scientist with a moral conscience. Scientists must be free and independent to raise concerns.”

Turton apologised and offered to address concerns over his paper, but the keynote presentation, which had been circulated widely two months previously, was cancelled at the last minute.

The paper itself was already in circulation at the conference and was later distributed by e-mail via an NGO.

On Friday, Turton was suspended on full pay by the executive director of the CSIR’s natural resource and environment unit, Pat Manders, pending the outcome of an investigation. The alleged misconduct relates to harm done to the CSIR by Turton’s published writings and/or conduct.

In the 20-page document, Turton said CSIR scientists needed to “hold ourselves accountable to the citizens of this country” and accused the council’s mixed-funding model of exposing “a national asset to the risk of being hijacked by private interests”.

Yesterday Turton said the country was “heading for an unmitigated disaster way worse than the Eskom electricity crisis”. “I’m not a maverick in any way. But I’m not afraid of making my voice heard,” he said.

Five of SA’s major dams, Turton claims, are contaminated with toxin levels that are among the highest in the world. And there is no current engineering solution to the problem.

In his paper, Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-makers Need to Know about and how the CSIR Should Respond, Turton said no studies had been done on people exposed to chronic doses of microcystins, a water toxin, and this bordered on the “criminally negligent”.

“We need to know if microcystins are causing human health problems, specifically in communities that are immune-compromised,” he wrote.

Turton’s paper also highlighted a growing antiretroviral load that is passing through people into rivers, entering the population either through the drinking-water stream or through produce irrigated with contaminated water.
Turton declined to speculate on the reason behind his suspension. “I have been overwhelmed by the enormous outpouring of support from my colleagues. I have no anger or malice in my heart.”

CSIR spokesman Christa van der Merwe said in a statement yesterday that the presentation was withdrawn “due to certain statements that were made ... which could not be sufficiently substantiated, as well as the depiction of burning victims, which could have offended sensitive members of the audience”.

The full paper was “freely available” and distributed as part of conference proceedings, she said.

“Dr Turton elected to engage with the media on the matter of the withdrawal of his presentation, despite internal avenues that are available, and in contravention of organisational policy.

“An internal investigation has been started and, consequently, Dr Turton was suspended ...”

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