Thursday, November 27, 2008

The suicidal politics of water

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) suspension on Friday 21 November of internationally acclaimed political-and-water scientist Dr Anthony Turton has been widely reported in the South African media over the past few days. Turton was prevented from delivering his keynote address, A Clean South Africa at the CSIR conference, Science real and relevant last week in which he would discuss South Africa’s looming water crisis.

The environmental justice forum Environment South Africa is running a petition against the CSIR’s suspension of Dr Turton.

Why would a reputable scientific institution such as the CSIR suspend a top research fellow for “presenting the facts so that decision makers can make informed decisions” as Turton put it in an interview on Talk Radio 702 yesterday morning? He told presenter John Robbie that he was informed at the last minute that his paper was going to be withdrawn because it contained images that could be disturbing to sensitive viewers in the audience. Page 5 of his report contains a photo of the burning body of a victim of the recent xenophobic violence.

Turton said in the interview that he offered to withdraw the images but then he was told that his report contained certain facts that could not be sufficiently substantiated. He said he was surprised by this because he claimed that the report had been circulated internally for peer review well in advance. He went on to say that Nature, one of the top international science journals wants to publish his paper. Nature News quotes Christa van der Merwe, a CSIR spokesperson, as saying that the researcher “was not suspended for his views on the state of water in South Africa, or to silence him, but rather for bringing the council into disrepute.”

Reading different media reports it seems that Turton’s crime was that he spoke to the media despite internal avenues being available to him. In his interview with 702 he made it clear that he didn’t approach the media but that he merely answered questions when the media approached him.

It remains a mystery why the report was blocked in the first place if Turton offered to withdraw the images and if it had been circulated internally before the conference. What were the management of the CSIR thinking when they pulled the report - that the media would not pick up on it and approach the author? Did they expect him to remain silent about an issue that has the potential to trigger large scale social unrest because of a serious national health risk and a looming economic disaster because of the deteriorating state of our water infrastructure and our shrinking technical capacity?

Ironically the entire report, including the disturbing images, is still available on the research section of the CSIR website today, 26 November. Since Turton’s suspension his report has received much more publicity than it would, had he been allowed to deliver it at the conference. The images are now available for the nation to see, not just the select group of conference goers.

This leaves one wondering whether the CSIR didn’t receive instructions from some higher authority. The minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Mrs Lindiwa Hendricks told parliament on 11 March that there is no water crisis in South Africa. This speech came shortly after the electricity crisis which government officials, including minister Alec Erwin were also denying until the whole country was hit by power blackouts and load shedding.

If denying an electricity crisis is irresponsible, denying a water crisis is simply suicide, mass national suicide. Are we seeing the suicide politics of water in action? Tonight SABC news reported a water crisis in the Freestate province. Again it was a scientist drawing attention to the problem and government officials denying that there is a crisis. Now is the time to mobilise public opinion on this matter.

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