Experts, experts everywhere…

2008-06-23 00:00

We are very well endowed with intellect in our city. We have a range of top schools, tertiary education facilities, an active Chamber of Commerce, industries, public and private health care, many NGOs, a functioning municipality and public and private water quality laboratories that would be the envy of most cities.

We also have a plethora of national and provincial government agencies. All have some responsibility for the intellect and functions that should keep the Msunduzi River and its environs respectable. They are backed by a plethora of policies, legislation and conventions from Local Agenda 21 (the sustainable development call to action developed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit) to national and international conventions relating to the environment, biodiversity, health and water. Despite this wealth of competence and capacity, we are all failing to prevent our rivers and streams from being cesspits. Why? I believe that it is because our thinking about such matters is fragmented and, as a result, so are our actions.

Acclaimed writer and academic Peter Senge reminds us that for thousands of years the human response to threats has been to fight, flee or blame others. Not much seems to have changed. We find someone to blame, seek them out and ask them for comment. Generally, they are unavailable for comment or offer some excuse and it all stops there, until the next time. Senge also says that due to the technical complexity of modern life we have specialised to the point that we need to take conscious steps to put our fragmented thought together again. We have lost sight of “the big picture”. However, as he points out, this synthesis is too complex for the individual, so it needs be a collective undertaking. He also makes the telling point that many of the complex threats that we face, like environmental destruction, are ones that we ourselves have contributed to.

So what can we do, as individuals and as a society, to synthesise our thinking, in order to address the complex challenges of the Duzi-type issues we face in South Africa (such as energy, health care, education, housing and employment)?

At the personal level, our thinking is fragmented for a number of reasons, so I shall address just two.

Firstly, many of the challenges we take on in, and through, organisations are complex and technical so as individuals we take a small piece of the overall system and specialise in it. This in itself is not a problem, but the fact is that we often lose sight of the “big picture” and forget the links between the pieces of the system.

Secondly, we are conditioned to focus on providing answers rather than asking questions. In our schooling and many other aspects of daily life the teacher or the superior sets the questions and our job is to provide the answers. This is fine up to a point, but one of the problems with our inordinate emphasis on answers is that once we have found one that seems to answer the question, we stop thinking. We may have the right answer but it may be the wrong question. If we were conditioned to pose questions we would not stop thinking after the first answer, we would pose a follow-up question and more after that. Posing wise, logical and searching questions is central to developing systems thinking abilities and to synthesising the thinking of individuals and society.

As individuals we are always able to question ourselves because we are always present to ourselves. However, this is not the case at the level of society as different areas of society do not always relate to each other.

In terms of managing our water resources, this was true before 1998 but in November 1998 the National Water Act changed that. To address integrated water resources management, this act introduced new bodies: all-sector catchment management agencies (CMAs). There is supposed to be one for each of 19 water management areas in South Africa. After 10 years, these bodies are still not functioning in most of our catchments, including our Mvoti to Umzimkulu water management area.

CMAs provide an ideal forum for all sectors to engage to ensure that integrated, holistic, systems-thinking becomes the norm with regard to water-related matters. Why the 10 year delay? There are many reasons, but if you strip away all the obfuscation surrounding the past 10 years, what is left is subtle, and not-so-subtle resistance.

Some stakeholder sectors, government officials and consultants have resisted and are still resisting the anticipated changes that systemic, holistic, non-fragmented thinking will bring. This resistance is foolish and at times borders on evil, but this is what we are doing in South Africa. If you want evidence of this foot dragging, ask yourself why the report card is so bad on the many, many “Duzis” when we have this plethora of policies, legislation and international conventions screaming at us?

Please resist the temptation to blame the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry or the municipality. Every one of us in a position of influence, who has not encouraged the formation of the CMAs is to blame for expensive and useless fragmented thinking and ap-proaches. Some may say that these matters are complex and things can’t change overnight. I agree, but World War 2 was complex and it was started, fought and won in six years. So far, we have taken 10 years to begin implementing the CMAs and still we have collective foot dragging from a number of sectors. They appear to be afraid of what might emerge from real non-fragmented thinking about land and water use and abuse in South Africa.

I want to return to the original question I asked: “Why is the Duzi river such a mess when we have so many people and organisations in this city that have the capability, resources and responsibility to do something about it?”

Integrated water resources management is not possible to achieve off a base of disintegrated information, disintegrated science and disintegrated action. Integrated water resources management is about what all sectors of society do on the land, which affects water. Water is like the blood in our veins and as such it reflects what all parts of the body (the brain, digestive system and the physical system) do. The fragmentation of thought, in relation to water, within and between all sectors of society, is at the root of what I have called disintegration.

I think we can do much better than we have been doing. What do you think?

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