South African Water Expert Suspended: Turton Tells Hard Truths – And Pays a PriceDecember 5, 2008 By Meaghan ParkerAnthony Turton, a South African water expert and fellow at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was suspended November 21 from CSIR for “insubordination” and bringing disrepute to the scientific research and development organization. CSIR is supported by grants from the South African Parliament, other government departments, and the private sector.
The suspension followed a ban on Turton’s scheduled keynote address, “A Clean South Africa” at the November CSIR conference “Science Real and Relevant.” CSIR said the presentation “could not be sufficiently substantiated,” and that images of violence from the recent spate of xenophobic attacks were offensive.
Now fighting for his academic survival, Turton spoke to the media to defend himself, including a video interview in which he calls the water crisis more severe than the power problems currently challenging the country. “Water scarcity is a fundamental developmental constraint, not only to South Africa, but also to the entire SADC [Southern African Development Community] region,” he says. An ECSP Navigating Peace brief coauthored by Turton and colleagues from CSIR points out that not only does the region have low rainfall, but also “the lowest conversion of rainfall-to-runoff in the world,” which “affects both surface water river flows and groundwater recharge.”
Due to South Africa’s mining industry, heavy metals, radionuclides, and other toxins in the water supply endanger human health. In addition, eutrophication in South Africa’s large dams support high levels of the potential toxin microcystin; according to Turton, while microcystin has the potential for long-term damage, “we’ve not done the science” to know for sure. He called on decision-makers to revive South African leadership in eutrophication research—a position it lost due to “lower priority status by government, which led to the termination of funding for research in this field,” reports Water Wheel.
But more graphically, Turton suggested that violence could erupt in Johannesburg’s townships in response to the water crisis; next to disturbing images of violence against Zimbabwean immigrants, his presentation asked, “Could this type of anger be unleashed in response to perceptions of deteriorating public health as a result of declining water quality?” His question could be timely; a cholera epidemic gripping Zimbabwe threatens South Africa as sick migrants cross the border to escape the collapsing nation.
As renowned water expert Aaron Wolf and others (including Turton) have pointed out, water has never led to wars between nations, but examples abound of local and civil conflicts—some of them deadly: violent protests in Cochabamba, Bolivia; pipeline bombings in California; and farmers and police clashing in China. The shocking photos of the anti-immigrant violence in Johannesburg’s townships may have touched a nerve in Turton’s intended audience, but they nevertheless drew a possible picture of the consequences of the state’s failure to meet the expectations of its most vulnerable citizens.
But which of Turton’s purported violations was more offensive to the powers that be: the violent images linking water and conflict, or his exposure of the government’s unwillingness to address the potential toxins dumped in the water supply by private interests? Both are bad for business—especially as South Africa’s economic growth slows. This situation eerily echoes the Bush administration’s suppression of climate scientists such as James Hansen for taking a similarly precautionary approach to future crises.
Wolf, who co-founded the Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters with Turton, said in an open letter:
Dr. Turton is one of the most careful and conscientious scientists I know. Moreover, he has great passion for the human dimension of his work, and holds his obligation for the betterment of society inviolable. Prof. Turton has a reputation for speaking hard truths about the world around him, and academic institutions generally have an obligation to protect academic freedom for precisely these sorts of cases.
Other public letters of support for Turton’s character and scholarship can be emailed to Mariette Lieferink, who is also leading an online petition effort.
“Must we be silenced and cowed into a corner?” Turton asks in his video interview. “This is for me a moral obligation, it’s a moral decision.”
Photo: Anthony Turton. Courtesy of Dave Hawxhurst and the Woodrow Wilson Center.