An appalling act of censorship

George Palmer writes on the suspension by the CSIR of water researcher Anthony Turton

"A clean South Africa" suppressed: If you don't like the message, shoot the messenger

The Top Brass at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) didn't like some of the slides Dr Anthony Turton wanted to include with his key-note address to its conference "Science Real and Relevant" on November 18.  Turton's paper is entitled "Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges That Decision-Makers Need To Know About And How The CSIR Should Respond".

So they ordered him to withdraw the slide presentation. And then suspended their leading researcher on water and political science because he "elected to engage with the media on the matter of the withdrawal of his presentation ... in contravention of organizational policy" despite his denial that it was he who had made it available to the media.

By doing so the CSIR is guilty of an appalling act of censorship reminiscent of the Nationalist Party's apartheid era.

Why appalling? Because the CSIR is a public institution substantially financed by South African taxpayers who are entitled to know the results of its scientists' research. Particularly when they sound warning bells, as Turton does, over the increasing contamination of their drinking water. More broadly South Africa's nascent democracy needs to encourage and protect the right of free speech and free assembly. That's why they are guaranteed in the Constitution.

It hardly needs to be added that the CSIR, of all public institutions, should nurture and safeguard a spirit of free enquiry and debate within and beyond its own community. By slamming a lid on what Dr Turton proposed to show to his colleagues, the CSIR's decision-makers have not only brought their institution into disrepute and insulted the intelligence of South Africans, they have exposed the country to international ridicule.

So what was this eminent scientist proposing to show that so disturbed CSIR's chief executive that he decided to take the drastic step of withholding Turton's presentation? Pressed to explain by the Sunday Times a spokesperson claimed some statements in Turton's paper "could not be sufficiently substantiated". But declined to say which and why.

Pressed by the Sunday Times, CSIR's chief executive, Sibusiso Sibisi, said he had decided Turton's presentation should be withdrawn because accompanying slides "departed significantly from the content of his paper" including photographs that depicted a child with birth defects living in an area affected by mining waste thus implying it was cause and effect. Such an inference was "based on a single data point, on a single child" and was therefore "not defensible science".

Does this sound like a reasonable justification for ordering the withdrawal of the entire slide presentation that supplemented his comprehensive examination of South Africa's water crisis, its potential for limiting South Africa's future economic growth and consequently its prospects for political stability?

All Sibusiso needed to do have done was ask Turton to omit the few offending slides or add an appropriate note of caution. That he canned the entire slide presentation suggests there could be other reasons.

Among the following excerpts from Turton's paper the reader may find some clues:

-- Water scarcity will set a limit to South Africa's future economic development and social well-being.

-- Because South Africa's major cities are located on watershed divides "... effluent return flow... is a major threat to future economic development simply because the quality of the water is so degraded that it becomes unfit for human consumption". And the ability to dilute pollutants and effluents is so impaired that discharge water will need to be treated to ever higher standards.

-- Moving water over great distances across watershed divides has had unintended consequences.  It has created an ideal environment for toxic cyanobacteria bloom (blue-green algae that can produce toxins dangerous to animals and humans); raised levels of pollution from mining in the form of radionuclides (radio active contaminants), heavy metals and sulphates; and generated endocrine disruptors that impair the functioning of the body's hormones. In addition using chemicals to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes can result in urogenital defects and the spread of microcystins that cause pooling of the blood in the liver that's rapid and irreversible.

There is also "the need to mitigate the impact of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) from both coal and gold sectors which has the capacity, if left unmanaged, to destroy the last remaining water resource on which the economic aspirations of a nation depend".

According to Turton the impending shortage of clean water will force South Africa to choose between accepting that the economic growth targets set in ASGISA cannot be reached OR rethinking how to mobilize its science, engineering and technology in "a concerted effort" to reach them.

Turton believes that the first choice would mean that the economy would grow so slowly that "with a reasonable certainty social instability will grow and  South Africa will slowly slide into anarchy and chaos ....The recent xenophobic violence is, in my professional  opinion, but a foretaste of things to come ... So that  choice is simply not an option".

In support of this contention Turton refers to South Africa's historic legacy---- a legacy "based on violence and the disrespect of human rights that still lives with us today", along with a propensity to resort to violence when expectations exceed the capacity to deliver.  A majority of citizens remain mired in endemic poverty and international investor confidence has been eroded by recent xenophobic attacks.

Asks Turton: "Can this type of anger be unleashed in response to perceptions of deteriorating public health as a result of declining water quality?"

Turton believes "trust is vital in a country which is still engaged in nation-building ... Trust is earned and in this regard the CSIR has a unique potential to act as honest broker when contested situations arise needing  robust scientific solutions such as human health risks arising from chronic exposure to populations living adjacent to gold mining operations".

Meanwhile South Africa's existing water-related physical infrastructure (tunnels, treatment works, pumping stations, pipelines etc.) is approaching the end of its useful life thus eroding confidence that there will be enough water for sustainable economic growth.

Another cause for alarm is that already "a significant proportion of South Africa's local authorities lack civil engineering professional support.

As a result, particularly in rural areas, local authorities most likely to be affected by deteriorating water quality ... are the least capable of removing "microcystins, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and anti-retroviral medications (ARVs) from their water".

That lack of professional engineering support has been exacerbated , Turton argues, by affirmative action employment rules that encourage emigration. South Africa is today producing fewer engineers than are leaving the profession and fewer are in research, national and provincial government

Unfortunately, according to Turton, the CSIR's ability to address the unintended consequences of the way the country's water resources have been utilized has been impaired by a shift from being financed by grants to a mix of grants and contracts.  That has had "a catastrophic effect on our science, engineering and technology (SET) capacity..... Our need for technological solutions is growing exponentially while our capacity to create those solutions is declining exponentially. Private funding removes that science from the public domain by placing contractual restrictions on both its scope and dissemination".

Hopefully these few excerpts from Turton's comprehensive overview will convey to the reader the seriousness of his warning that South Africa's deteriorating availability of clean water is placing severe limitations on its capacity for rapid economic growth as well as posing serious threats to the nation's health and its prospects for political stability.

As for the CSIR, Barbara Hogan, Minister of Health, should call for Turton's immediate reinstatement and a full report on Sibisi's action.

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