How the Rainbow Nation dried up

In a tributary of the Vaal and Orange River, institutional failure has rendered the problem of uranium contamination insoluble

Can South Africa regain its adaptive capacity after suffering its biggest ever drought?

By Tony Turton*

South Africa holds a unique place in the international water sector. It’s a developing country, yet renowned for progressive water laws and advanced water policies. It offers an exemplary case study. Yet certain lessons are more painfully learned than others and one of them concerns resilience.

The narrowly defined technical aspects of our profession–dams, diversions, pipes, pumps, toilets and treatment–often obscure how water resource management is embedded within a broader social and economic system. It’s part of a messy political process, involving a myriad of linkages between a plethora of stakeholders.

South Africa is a young democracy, having emerged from a long and complex colonial legacy with a highly charged racial component. A potent mixture of three political dynamics is always at work: race, ideology, and the cluster of science, engineering and technology as an artefact of history. This is like loose molecules floating on a sea of flammable fluid, looking for a reason to explode.

That reason came in 2016. With the arrival of the recent El Nino event, and the worst drought in recorded history, South Africa became a perfect learning laboratory, testing the current management regime’s resilience, or lack thereof.

Because South Africa’s economy is water constrained, its leaders had developed scientific and engineering solutions over a century: the technocratic paradigm of a hydraulic mission. But as a product of top-down colonial intervention, water management was regarded as foreign, culturally insensitive and racially exclusive. In 1994, the transition to democracy brought sweeping reform to all institutions including water.

While other countries had time to adjust water laws and policies incrementally, South Africa made a massive leap overnight. New leaders embraced the best of all international water practices. Doing so was praiseworthy but there were unintended consequences.

All too often, the modernisers simply rejected institutional knowledge, deeming it tainted by colonialism, socially alien and politically unacceptable. To redress past grievances, they expanded the original four provinces into nine, filling leadership positions through patronage that rewarded loyalty over merit.

South Africa has less technical capacity in basic rainfall and streamflow gauging stations than existed half a century ago

They decentralised authority over water away from powerful national departments to provincial and local governments, precisely where adaptive capacity was at its weakest. Historically disadvantaged and advantaged water and sanitation municipalities were amalgamated, in the mistaken belief that the stronger half would buoy up, rather than be drowned by, the weaker. Non-existent water rights–of, by, and for ecosystems and humans–became constitutionally enshrined while riparian rights were abolished to decouple land ownership from water.

Such noble ideals are hard to fault. But as Nelson Mandela’s peaceful Rainbow Nation doused the flames of civil war, few realised that lurking beneath simmered anti-colonial sentiment.

And such sentiment links two seemingly disparate events of 2016 which show how politics can destroy water resilience.

First came the biggest drought in recorded history, followed by angry university uprisings demanding free education and the “decolonisation” of curricula tainted by the likes of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and James Watt.

The two events are interrelated. The perception was that, since science, engineering and technology had only benefited a few under the hydraulic mission, it must be rejected as an artefact of colonial rule, and replaced by something more democratic. In a classic case of throwing out the clean baby with the dirty bathwater, rejection of ‘tainted’ technocratic solutions to water scarcity has undermined economic, social, and institutional resilience.

A step backwards

Today, South Africa has less technical capacity in basic rainfall and streamflow gauging stations than existed half a century ago. Databases have been plundered, legitimised by the mantra of the need for a radical “transformation” of society. Expertise leaks into private sector control. Trained local engineers become outside consultants, hired to advise the failing government that purged them. They’ve been replaced by Cubans, ideologically acceptable even if (as defined by the Washington Accord) technically unqualified. DDT, seemingly banned as an imposition of neo-colonial power, was enthusiastically reintroduced to control malaria. A major computing system, which was used to clean up, collate and process all water resource data, was shut down as too costly to manage and considered irrelevant by modernisers.

Anthony Turton serves on the board of various companies mitigating water as a corporate risk

So, when it arrived, the massive drought came as a surprise. It was rendered invisible from the decision-makers, unaware that critical data capturing systems had failed. Once it became obvious, they lacked adaptive capacity to respond as the drought pressed down. Nature makes a drought; fragile social institutions magnify it into a catastrophe.

How is this relevant to other countries? And how can we rebuild resilience?

Hostility to science is hardly recent, or unique to South Africa. But it gained steam under President Thabo Mbeki, who championed “traditional” African remedies to HIV/ AIDS–dismissed not as a disease but a “syndrome”–thus condemning tens of thousands to death or misery.

It should not come as a shock that a parallel decline crippled our water sector. Indeed, it may foreshadow transitions unfolding globally. Consider just one.

A new president in a globally significant economy, interventionist in posture and fuelled by a scepticism of science, campaigns to dismantle the legacy of policies that improved water management. He delegitimises climate change by focussing on the inherent uncertainty of highly complex systems analysis. Populist belief trumps empirical evidence.

South Africa exemplified this risk in 2016 as a warning for the years to come. But our lesson about the loss of resilience is not a foregone conclusion. Resilience is never built (or destroyed) in a day, or in a vacuum. It is the product of many institutional linkages. The real risk, then, is not from threats to science, engineering and technology but from a failure to see these narrow fields as embedded within a greater socio-economic and political system.

From Africa to Asia, Europe and the Americas, water technocrats can’t simply turn away, look inward, or bury themselves in books, experiments, or abstract research. We need to remain in the game, speak out, and challenge populist beliefs with empirical evidence. To fix this we need to accept that institutions embody the knowledge of how to deal with complex issues accumulated in a given society over time. Tampering with these for populist political purposes obliterates that institutional knowledge and reduces our collective resilience.

And that is the lesson we must all learn from South Africa.

*Anthony Turton holds two professorships in groundwater and environmental management, and serves on the board of various companies mitigating water as a corporate risk.