Criminal Stupidity – Seeds of our Water Crisis

2015-11-17 06:05

The dawning of the “New South Africa” brought expectations from all sides. Because it followed hot on the heels of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the demise of a host of Iron Curtain regimes, the balkanization of some regions and re-establishment of independence for previously subjugated nations such a Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, the Baltic states and others, logic suggested that a number of lessons had been learned.

So who, for argument sake would - in the post Soviet era - have been inept enough to suggest other than a strong constitution and the protection of individual rights; or other than merit and free markets as the way ahead for their economies?

This was the global context for negotiating and writing the South African constitution – and common sense was presumed to be in abundance. Mid ’94 seemed to hold promise. But there were other expectations too.

It was whispered darkly by some in (what came to be formalized as) the ruling South African alliance that our constitution was a down payment for what was to come. It was the first phase of the National Democratic Revolution – recognized already then by the rest of the world as a laughable and discredited communist notion. But it still beckoned a few in South Africa, although such elements remained tight lipped during the euphoric phase of new nationhood. They were biding their time.

It did not take long for the limitations of a constitution – impaired in its implementation by cultural and cognitive ineptitude, an all pervasive entitlement ethic and hardly any management savvy – to become obvious, and begin to self-destruct. To make things worse, there was little leadership to speak of.

The much vaunted Mandela was a conciliatory and aging teddy bear; a figurehead who tried to please as many people as possible: Mbeki was a dysfunctional and eccentric Walter Mitty: and Zuma - when stripped of all the emperor’s clothes - an awaiting trial criminal who remains unlikely to ever face justice.

The net result of this accelerating and unchecked decay in the national ethical fabric is that the functionality of the state has been undermined. Parastatals; the economy at large; education; transport; infrastructure et al, are in crisis.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of water management. While Eskom’s dysfunctionality ranks as a national disaster, the state of the nation’s water management is cataclysmic.

Water - the Issues

A historical perspective on the water situation by Professor Anthony Turton - a member of the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State can be found on the website

It is an important read, but for me the bottom line is how it exposes the criminal stupidity of the ruling establishment. Essentially ANC politicians have played fast and loose with the nation’s most valuable national resource and endangered not only our food security, but turned away huge investment opportunities, seriously undermined the quality of the nation’s water and failed to maintain the infrastructure that it inherited. It amounts to a crime against the nation, since the tools were in place to keep things working and the technology available to implement further improvements to remain on top of our precarious water regime.

But it chose to ignore those tools and set priorities that were at variance with our water imperatives and plain absurd.

In much the same way as Eskom’s directors gave themselves large bonuses for “transforming” the company into a state of decline and near collapse, the fundamentals of water management were turned on their head in order to achieve vacuous and ill defined “transformation” goals.

A summary of the important points (again, courtesy of Prof Turton) provides important background to our current status:

• Most of South Africa constitutes a water stressed environment - receiving less than half the world average rainfall.

• To this end, the previous regime put in hand a comprehensive strategy to optimise water usage, secure its access for agricultural and industrial growth and ensure world class water quality. The 1970 report of the Commission of Enquiry into Water Matters heralded the start of this process.

• Between the newly formed Water Research Commission and the CSIR, initiatives were undertaken in the seventies to develop the science and engineering technology needed to address South Africa’s endemic water scarcity. As a result, South Africa became a global leader in the management of water.

As a further result it was possible for the country to survive periodic droughts - often occasioned by the El Nino phenomenon.

• Until the late nineties, riparian water rights applied to the use of and entitlement to water. Simplistically put this meant that water was allocated among those who possessed land along its path. In that way the twin resources of land and water were made economically usable, so that the nation could be fed.

• In 1998, the state became the trustee of water rights and riparian and common law rights were scrapped. This was to give the State the power to decide on ‘the equitable allocation of water in the public interest’, and address “past racial and gender discrimination”.

• Conflict, impasses, the establishment of a “Water Tribunal”, court actions and a sense of institutional torpor have characterized our water management since the introduction of the National Water Act of 1998 and our cumulative water management memory – think of it as intellectual capital in relation to managing water - has been largely erased.

• Huge amounts of water are now wasted through inadequate maintenance and poor departmental management

• Technological innovations to address the issue of managing “return flow” water – essential to securing enough to go round sustainably – have not been tackled and represent a future hazard to public health

• The effects of the latest El Nino – up to 10 years later than some had expected – has caught the nation with its pants around its ankles - and there is no way to pull them up.

In a nutshell, we are in a serious water crisis.

To me, this begs an important philosophical question and raises several ethical issues.

Given that

• the technology;

• the intellectual capital;

• institutional experience;

• accumulated research data;

• experienced personnel, and

• a willingness to contribute and share knowledge from day 1 of the “New” South Africa

were firmly in place, and that

• the state nonetheless chose to make itself sole custodian of a vital terrestrial asset

the government thereby implicitly took it on its shoulders to ensure that the resource was optimally managed.

That such a solemn obligation be taken lightly has to constitute a criminal offence. The state should have recognized that from the outset, it was impossible to manage water affairs within its own capabilities. Thus it was obliged to access outside resources - whether internationally or locally outside of its ideological inner circle.

But it failed to do so.

Instead it chose to politicize the water issue and – as with power generation, airlines, rail networks telecommunications and education - laid to waste a vital national asset. And on this occasion there is no obvious way out.

I would proffer that the ruling party has acted in a way that has taken its stupidity to a new level; there has been a paradigm shift in ideological delusion. What remedies do we, as citizens have against such government?

The Big Ethical Question

Given that the solutions were at hand and the imperatives clear, I would suggest that government’s actions – or lack of them – make the state guilty of crimes against the South African nation (and I refer here not just to “South Africans” – i.e. its peoples - but its terrestrial resources; agricultural stocks and wildlife; its economy and food security)!

Surely the wanton disregard of government’s fiduciary duties over our national water asset (given that it was working to start with and that it had the resources to address the issues and continue its effective management), make it criminally liable?

It would be interesting to know whether in international law there have ever been precedents for such abuses being challenged through the courts. I also wonder whether – as in our case - wanton ignorance and palpable stupidity would constitute valid legal defences.

Somehow I doubt it.

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AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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