Worsening Drought: a Damning Sequel to Criminal Stupidity

2017-05-30 06:29

Some years back, the state of Israel – a success story of an agricultural economy thriving in a water-stressed environment – offered help to South Africa when the nation’s water management limitations became obvious. The offer was turned down. As we all by now know, there have been plenty more examples of management limitations in the South African political economy, many with disastrous outcomes.

But water constitutes the most vital scarce natural resource we have - hence to mismanage it is treasonous.

We have in past years always suffered from periodic drought. That is beyond human control.

In terms of the recent past, much of the country got a let-off over this past summer, with the crisis having been somewhat alleviated thanks to some heavy summer rains. Not so the Western Cape.

The declaration of the Cape Metropole as a disaster zone on account of depleted dam levels has brought the water issue into focus afresh since winter rains are late and it seems improbable that even good falls will be able to adequately fill dams to sustain the region through another summer.

What are the key issues in managing this natural, fickle and unpredictable resource?

Step 1 - Defining the Problem

The entire sub continent is by and large a water stressed region which regularly suffers drought, largely from the effects of the El Nino phenomenon. It is currently still suffering under the effects of a belated and long El Nino.

However, the county survived many an El Nino in the past and developed a highly successful agricultural economy between the 1950s and 1990s – primarily through astute water management.

Since the mid nineties, that capacity has been drastically diminished.

Step 2 – Examining 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 http://www.biznews.com/sa-investing/2015/11/10/antony-turton-water-crisis-avoidable-skills-shortages-poor-waste-management/

It is an important read, but for me the bottom line is how it exposes the criminal stupidity of the ruling establishment since 1994.

Essentially ANC politicians have played fast and loose with the nation’s most valuable natural resource and endangered not only our food security, but turned away 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 itself, since at the “New South Africa’s" inception the tools were in place to keep things working and the technology was available to implement planned improvements in order to remain on top of our precarious water resources.

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

In much the same way as Eskom’s directors gave themselves generous 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 industry 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 – more often than not 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 ever 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.

The Culpability Question

This begs some important philosophical questions and 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,

- it is astonishing and profoundly irresponsible that the state chose to make itself sole custodian of this vital terrestrial asset.

In other words, government chose to take it on its own shoulders to ensure, with neither the intellectual capacity nor institutional memory at its disposal, that the resource was optimally – or even just adequately - managed.

It played Russian Roulette with the nation’s water.

Is it not reasonable to ask whether such a key responsibility being taken lightly - nay managed incompetently - constitutes a criminal offence? The state should have recognised that from the outset, it was impossible to manage water affairs within its own capabilities.

It could have accessed outside water management resources – whether internationally or locally - outside of its ideological remit.

But it failed to do so.

Instead it chose to politicize the water issue and – in common with power generation, airlines, rail networks telecommunications and education – seriously compromised a vital national asset.

I suggest that the ruling party has acted in a way that has taken its stupidity to a new level; it represents a further paradigm shift in ideological delusion.

What remedies do we, as citizens have against such government?

A Question of Ethics

Given that the solutions were at hand and the imperatives clear, I am proposing that government’s actions – or lack of them – make the state guilty of crimes against the 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. I refer here to the nation in its totality.

Surely the wanton disregard of government’s fiduciary duties over our national water asset, make it criminally culpable?

I would like to know whether in international law there has ever been a precedent for such abuses being challenged through a court of law? I also wonder whether – as in our case – wanton ignorance and palpable stupidity would constitute a valid legal defense.

Somehow I doubt it.

(Updated and adapted from an earlier post that I published in 2015)

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