Prof Anthony Turton, a scientist and consultant specialising in water resource management

“We need R1 trillion to fix what’s broken in the water sector, but the science and technology already exists to make it happen,” says Prof Anthony Turton, a scientist and consultant specialising in water resource management as a strategic issue.  “South Africa has been reclaiming and desalinating acid mine water at Witbank and other areas for at least a decade without problems, proving that we can convert the worst water into the cleanest potable water. 

“With an enabling environment and more capital, we can launch more water recycling and desalination programmes,” he adds. “We don’t need to crash and burn – we need credible thought leadership creating a vision supported by robust science, engineering and technology; then we need to populate the vision with enthusiastic and competent people.”

Good news

Prof Turton is optimistic that progress is already being made. “There’s a lot of good news. The current Minister of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, has gone out of his way to reach out to experts and create water war rooms. Within the government, we see ‘moderate middle’ components where capital resides and rational people want to make South Africa a better place. 

“And there are scientists, business chambers and local governments already working on more advanced water recycling and desalination plans. The South African Water Chamber, of which I am a founding member, is working with stakeholders and the government to create programmes using special purpose vehicles as a solution to failing municipalities and to enable economic growth. These SPVs, to be rolled out over the next decade, will mobilise the R1 trillion we need.”

Radar and Wits University

Prof Turton says research based in science is important in driving progress in sectors such as water resource management: “During WWII, it became evident that science, engineering and technology could play a significant role. The invention of radar, directly linked to Prof Basil Schonland at Wits University, was a game changer in the Battle of Britain.

“This triggered the creation of national science councils in all former British colonies, mandated by parliament to generate the science, engineering and technology platform needed to develop the economy. Each Commonwealth country has gone different routes, but many still have CSIR-type science councils.

Recycling sewage

“In South Africa, the Commission of Enquiry into Water Matters, created the national framework to guide the CSIR in the type of research and technology development needed. An example is the development of technology to safely recycle sewage as potable water, which was pioneered by the CSIR for implementation in Windhoek. The same happened when the treatment of acid mine water became a crisis, with the sulphur removal technology being pioneered by the CSIR. 

“We can safely say that the economic development of South Africa has been strongly influenced by science, engineering and technology, with many examples, including the pioneering work into the production of oil from coal.”

Two spheres

Research information supports his own work. Prof Turton notes, “Research creates an unambiguous platform for the creation of new knowledge around complex issues. Coming from a national science council, that research formed the foundation of policy and thinking in both the public and private spheres.

“Today I still work in two spheres – research exclusively funded by private capital for strictly commercial purposes and research in the public domain for the public good. There is a place for both in society.”  

Dammed water

Prof Turton says that while South Africa is undeniably experiencing a water crisis, this situation could be reversed by changing the paradigms around water management. “In the past, water was seen as single use stock, and the solution to scarcity was to create dams and inter basin transfers,” he says.

This approach was the foundation of huge industrial growth around the world, but had unintended consequences. Now, areas of the country that once thrived on a foundation of dammed water face economic ruin.

The dinosaur age

“The paradigm must change – water is infinitely usable. In a new paradigm of abundance, based on simple scientific truth, we must acknowledge that water is a flux flowing in time and space, therefore it’s an infinitely renewable resource. When it has been used, it returns into the ecosystem, so you haven’t lost it – you still have the same volume.”

Prof Turton notes that water moves in time and space, driven by the laws of physics, in what is known as the hydrological cycle. “In fact, we have the same volume on our planet today as we had when the dinosaurs roamed free 65 million years ago,” he concludes.

This article forms part of a new series of thought leadership content, whereby the global leader in information and analytics, Elsevier, has engaged some of South Africa’s most noteworthy scientists and academics to explore their latest work to help address the biggest challenges that South Africa faces.

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