OP-ED

Environmental management needs to be democratised

By Lesley Green, Nikiwe Solomon, Jo Barnes and Leslie Petrik 6 March 2019

Zandvliet Wastewater Treatment Works/Screenshot/Google Maps

In a time of environmental devastation and the need for paradigm shifts in order to govern for change, how does one address government officials on what to do, without going around the old, familiar circuits of polemic that leads to relational breakdown?

This is the challenge our research team has to address, in working alongside community members living near the Zandvliet Waste Water Treatment Works and putting that research into dialogue with the City of Cape Town.

An article in Daily Maverick in December 2018 sketched the toxic environment in the Sandvlei area around the treatment works – an area that has become as dystopian a nightmare as any climate fiction (“cli-fi”) movie.

Carte Blanche followed, airing an insert in early January 2019 that the city has now taken to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

Both Carte Blanche and ourselves had encountered a community struggling with chronic and acute respiratory ailments; chronic gastrointestinal complaints; chronic skin infections. Our first round of sampling water and mud that appeared to us to be raw excrement found significant numbers of E. coli. Our second round of sampling for E. coli and this time also for Enterococcus was delayed, because the counts were so high that the laboratory had to recalibrate its equipment.

In mid-February 2019, the SABS laboratory in Rosebank finally released the results of the second round of water and mud samples taken to them by Nikiwe Solomon on November 27 2018, to test for Enterococcus and E. Coli.

The levels painted an astonishing picture.

At the pipe where effluent from the treatment works gushes into a sloot of a few hundred metres known by locals as the Kakrivier (“shit river”), the E. coli count was 245 colony-forming units (cfu) per 100 mL.

For drinking water, neither E. coli nor Enterococcus should be present, according to the South African national guidelines for water quality (SANS 241:2015. While people are unlikely to be drinking from the river, birds and farm animals do.

Ammonia was measured at the effluent outfall at a level of 54.1 mg NH3/L. The South African National Water Quality Guidelines of 2015 specify that ammonia ought to be below 1.5 mg NH3/L for drinking water and below 6 mg NH3/L for wastewater. The Department of Water and Sanitation notes that ammonia levels in excess 10.0 mg NH3/mL present a “danger of formation of nitrite. Likelihood of fish deaths … Chlorination is severely compromised”. In other words, where there are high ammonia levels, chlorine treatment used in sewage plants to kill bacteria will be less effective. The level measured is nine times the maximum for wastewater.

Where the murky sloot water joins the Kuils River, the clearer river water coming through the Khayelitsha wetlands showed an E. coli count of 51 cfu/100 mL.

The water sampled at the end of the “Kakrivier” sloot showed an E. coli count of 600 cfu/100 mL – indicating that levels in the effluent vary considerably. In addition, there is a heavy irritant gas smell coming from the sloot, which is likely to be an additive such as chlorine which is used frequently in sewage plants to kill microbes. Chlorine is highly volatile and will react with the vast range of chemicals in any urban sewage system, coming from all the shelves of every supermarket and from every factory floor. The volatiles could be responsible for the high levels of acute respiratory distress (such as asthma) reported in the area. This needs urgent investigation.

A few hundred metres down river, across the Kuils, the ammonia levels were again high, at 50.8 mg NH3/L. In the mud on 22 November 2018, the E. coli count was 36,000 cfu/100 mL. On 27 November 2018, the E. coli count in the same mud was 200,000 cfu/100 mL while the count of Enterococcus, a faecal bacteria, was 1,275,000 cfu/100 mL.

In water management, E. coli and Enterococcus are indicator organisms that indicate the likely presence of other pathogens.

Another few hundred metres along the Kuils at the concrete bridge going into Sandvlei, on 22 November, the E. coli count in the water at the edge of the river was 4,400 cfu/100 mL, and ammonia was 39.7 mg NH3/L. But five days later, on 27 November, the E. coli count was 43,500 cfu/100 mL and the Enterococcus was 465,000 cfu/100 mL.

E. coli and Enterococcus counts at the borehole were both only 1 cfu/100 mL, suggesting that the problem is not present in the groundwater and therefore unlikely to be coming from a septic tank system or local land-based activities. Further groundwater research is needed to confirm this at other places.

A further few hundred metres downstream, at the confluence of the Kuils and Eerste rivers, on November 27, the E. coli count was 872,000 cfu/100 mL and for Enterococcus, 1,285,000 cfu/100 mL.

And a further few hundred metres from there, at the Mosque, the E. coli count on November 27 was 46,500 and for Enterococcus 75,500 cfu / 100 mL. Ammonia was reduced to 37.5 mg NH3/L – still more than triple the harmful level.

The question is: what does one do with such data? How do you interpret it? It is almost impossible without on-the-ground information as to what is happening, day-to-day and place-to-place.

In January, our Daily Maverick piece yielded a request to attend a meeting with the City’s Executive Director of Water and Sanitation, Dr Gisela Kaiser, and other City water officials.

In the three-hour meeting held later that month at the gleaming new headquarters of Cape Town’s water management, a dozen city engineers and managers were adamant: there was no way that the treatment process at the Zandvliet plant could be causing health problems for people who live along the river. Nor could it be causing the unhealthy microbial load reported by the community in the river. Nor could the poorly treated sewage we had observed be coming from the treatment works. City officials appeared fixated on the comparatively low E. coli count of 245 cfu/100 mL in the heavily chlorinated effluent discharged into the Kakrivier sloot, as if it absolved them of the responsibility for the further investigation.

If the treatment plant was not, in their view, likely to be the reason for the high microbial levels in the “mud” floating in the water and banked up at the river edges, what might it be?

For a researcher, scientific curiosity leads the way. Evidence that does not fit a picture is always welcome: that is the basis of why we do research. If a current understanding is wrong, that’s the cue to research it further, and understand it better. Being willing to be wrong is right: it is the basis of making knowledge. If the bacterial count is the lowest where the effluent flows out of the pipe and into the “Kakrivier”, this suggests that pathogens may be attaching to mud or solids in the effluent, and building up in the river sediment.

In that meeting, our team tabled the figures of E. coli levels in water and mud samples collected on November 22, 2018.

Discussing the findings, Lesley Green made the case that our data did not support the counterproposal of some officials that the high microbial levels were coming from shacks in the Khayelitsha wetlands upstream. That was because the Kuils River water showed a much lower microbial load upstream of the Zandvliet treatment works than downstream.

Could it be that the high microbial counts in the “mud” (as City officials requested we call the matter we had termed “excrement”) were the result of the behaviour of particles in the river flow? There was clearly a need for a specialist investigation. Green offered to put together an interdisciplinary research team but was told there were no funds for research. She offered to raise funds for that research and asked who would be interested in pursuing the question. No takers.

One suggestion from a senior official was that if the mud was the problem, they should just canalise that section of the river. But canalising to cope with microbiological contamination is always a bad idea. It removes the ability that a wetland ecology has of dealing with such pollution. A concrete canal would worsen the pollution of the water in the river, and, at the river mouth, exacerbate the algal blooms that periodically make the new desalination plants unable to function.

The proposal was an engineering solution: emanating not from an objective standpoint but from a dystopian, socio-cultural imaginary in which Cape Town’s rivers are sewers; so therefore to make better sewers, just add concrete.

It was not a solution for a problem that is understood as part of the complex urban Anthropocene ecology in which infrastructure is failing, and the environment is overwhelmed by new forms of toxicity.

No partnership was being imagined with the struggling ecology, where even local teenagers remember frogs and otters and crabs and fish that are now gone. The nights along the river are silent, they say.

The team left the meeting frustrated. People are sick and dying of illnesses that appear to result from environmental contamination along that stretch of the river. The major concern of the City officials appeared to have been addressing the reputational risk rather than any potential environmental risk. Moreover, the focus on engineering meant that officials seemed to be thinking in terms of an ideal working model – and not considering what might be happening when it broke down. That, even though they were dealing with a 10-year delay in an upgrade to the treatment plant, due to multiple consecutive court cases over the tenders.

Nonetheless, we agreed to work with the City as closely as possible.

After our much-delayed Enterococcus results reached us two weeks ago in February, Green requested an urgent meeting with Dr Kaiser to share our results, noting in the email that one of our samples had yielded 1,285,000 Enterococcus cfu/100 mL. Clearly, there is an urgent need for intervention, and further research to establish the source of the pollution.

Dr Kaiser responded almost immediately, proposing a meeting two days later. Solomon and Green developed a Google Earth map showing the data at each point. Green requested parking for all the members of our team, including Maryam Salie of the Sandvlei United Community Organisation and permission for a local journalist to film our presentation, but not the discussion. Parking permissions were granted.

When we arrived at the Civic Centre, Maryam Salie was waiting at the security gates along with about eight members of SUCO. We were all cleared through by security and escorted to the boardroom. While astonished at how many SUCO members were there, in social science, one learns to “roll with it” when more people arrive than you expect. In any event, at our previous meeting with the City at which we had expected three or four officials, we’d encountered a dozen.

Arriving in the boardroom, Dr Kaiser challenged Green. This was a meeting for scientists only, she said. The inclusion of the community made it political. As an official, it was not within her mandate to engage the community: only with scientists. She was an appointed official, she said, and not an elected one. She dealt with science, not politics. She and the other officials present would leave the meeting.

In a 15-minute back-and-forth, Green asked her not to leave. Some of the arguments: Our data demonstrated that the E. coli-based water monitoring data currently being collected by the City did not give a useful picture of environmental health around the sewage treatment plant. The samples collected at different points on the river offered a different picture; that working with the community would help us to interpret the data and ask better questions, to plan for better monitoring. People are sick and dying. That social science ethics compelled inclusive ways of working. That the interest of good science is to ground-truth data.

None of these arguments found any purchase. We were welcome to the boardroom, Dr Kaiser said, to have our meeting with the community, but she and other City officials would leave. SUCO volunteered to keep silent and only listen to the presentation. That proposal was also not acceptable. The officials walked out, and the research team was left to discuss the data only with members of the community.

On Saturday morning, Green wrote to Dr Kaiser requesting a one-to-one meeting to share the data, reflect on our different ways of working and our respective professional protocols regarding including members of the community in research.

Then, on Saturday lunchtime, SUCO laid a criminal charge against the City for environmental pollution, in terms of the National Environmental Management Act.

On the morning of Monday 18 February, a letter from Dr Kaiser informed us that “the trust relationship has been affected. I am still considering how to move forward on this”.

In Green’s response on the same day, she proposed a facilitator to manage further meetings and reiterated her availability to share our findings in a one-to-one meeting.

More than two weeks later, no response has yet been received, nor has any request been forthcoming to see the data, either from Dr Kaiser, or her political superior, Mayoral Committee Member Xanthea Limberg.

In the context of a health emergency, the City’s refusal to receive any data from us, or engage with our findings, is negligent.

Xanthea Limberg’s lack of intervention to back up her officials who were holding what is presumably her policy line, that they do science but she does politics, is an indictment on her political leadership of the water portfolio. If E. coli and Enterococcus are present in such high counts, it is a problem of sanitation that falls within the departmental remit to investigate, whether or not the cause is the treatment works. Such an investigation would be an example of leadership that is courageous enough to tackle a problem. It would exemplify democracy in action, and science at its best.

But right now, “science” is being used at its worst. The City’s claim to be doing environmental monitoring by E. coli figures is held to be adequate, and even though those E. coli figures are claimed to be available, they are not readily accessible to the public. Their claim is that their data is best – and this claim is used to close down discussion by asserting the primacy of their number over that of independent scientists, or a community’s lived experience. This disempowers everyone apart from themselves – as if people who live in the area, or independent researchers, know nothing at all. This kind of “science” is politics by other means.

The result is that tentative relationships facilitated by researchers between the city and the community have been broken. The courts are now involved. Will a judge have to decide whose Enterococcus and E. coli collection processes are more reliable in order to assign blame?

In old-fashioned science, that process is called “peer review”. When that must be outsourced to the courts, the search for facts becomes a search for a guilty party, and defences will be made in terms of officials’ mandates and the very kinds of reductionist science that have amplified the problem. This is not what a science-based democratic process is, nor should it be.

At a time when the environmental breakdown is everywhere; trust in political leadership and governance is precipitously low; where polemical styles and party point-scoring get most airtime, is it possible to get beyond the destructive patterns in which reductionist science becomes an exercise of power by the power elite over the marginalised?

The City is currently calling for researchers to comment on its plans for water management and is actively seeking – and offering funding to – university researchers to partner with it. But will that research be shared only on plush boardroom carpets, or also in the toxic mud alongside Cape Town’s rivers that have been turned into open sewers? Whose findings, and whose community partnerships, will be acceptable?

How can research provide not only data but the direction, in the face of chronic, systemic infrastructural overload, and illogical rationales, that no official or politician in the City appears to want to acknowledge?

Even if the Mayoral Committee member has failed to exercise her mind in this situation, it is not helpful to play the familiar game of rendering this as a drama of angels and demons. But that appears to be the way some officials want to play the game. A week after the meeting, a senior official who had been at the meeting, Greg Oelofse, reportedly accused our team of “ambushing” the City. He was with Limberg at the time.

We refuse to get drawn into an argument that draws that kind of conclusion or turns this into a morality play about good and compliant scientists v bad and unruly ones. Of course, we are going to be accused of being noncompliant scholars; of being “women who make a fuss”.

We do not care what personal remarks are made about us by officials. We do care about claiming and holding a professional ground in which the ethics of scientific accountability matters; about activating research processes in which communities are included in framing questions, and in ground-truthing and testing and interpreting data. It is critically important that environmental data collection, in terms of which governance mandates are determined to be acceptable or not, is peer-reviewed and publicly available.

Science needs to work with and for society. It cannot simply be used as a means for officials to be able to say they fulfil their mandate. The spirit of the Constitution matters as much as the letter of the law.

To change the current system, it is a necessity that access to data be democratised; that scientific standards for environmental management are regularly updated in accordance with international norms; that communities are involved in the determination of what questions are asked and therefore what data is needed to manage their environments; that there is independent oversight of the collection and analysis of data.

How might the current stalemate be unpacked and changed?

A number of conceptual resources are useful.

The first is to understand the history of techno-science in the city.

Techno-scientific management arose as part of the global rollout of geographical information systems (GIS) in the 1990s onward, coinciding with the dawn of South Africa’s democracy. But the problem with shifting the core approach to environmental governance into the numbers placed on the map is that it devalues (or even replaces) the inspector on the ground, who may have been better able to build relationships with communities and take note of emerging concerns. To replace a relationship with a number: a number of E.coli, for example, collected once or twice a month, at one or two places; unsupervised, changes the way the collective operates. An E.coli number is a vital tool in environmental management, but it should never replace dialogue with communities. The two ought to work jointly. But the design of democratic governance in South Africa in the 1990s coincided with a loss of on the ground relations in civic management, which was replaced by GIS-based management.

That technological reductionism reduces a complex situation to a single figure that is believed to represent a total truth.

The government currently evaluates its performance in terms of those numbers, which determine whether or not a department is living up to its mandate. But as the Eskom coal evaluation debacle reveals, if there is no oversight, or public accountability, as to how those numbers get produced, they can be “cooked up” very easily. It is easy to fudge an E. coli test. If the extension of a multimillion-rand contract depends on good figures, managing the collection of water samples would be a very tempting prospect.

Second: understand the dehumanisation that goes with techno-scientific management.

Governance by numbers is believed to eradicate emotion. To think and manage professionally does not involve eradicating emotions. But practices of government that eradicate emotion also eradicate empathy. They eradicate any possible connection with suffering. Worse, a fetishising of governance by numbers provides the illusory defence of “lack of bias”, as if numbers are somehow free of bias, which they are not. That defence creates an arrogance that is unbecoming of scholarship. It allows for the current situation in which there is an unwillingness to acknowledge any problem with their “science”.

The dehumanisation that results triggers wounding. It is hurtful. It breaks relationships with communities. If communities are excluded from boardrooms or meeting rooms, their only choice is to turn to the courtroom.

Can governance by numbers that dehumanises people in the name of doing “science” be replaced with dignity politics? What needs to change in the approach to doing public science? What does decolonisation of environmental management look like?

Third: the issue of ‘scientific fundamentalism’

The idea that any science, and all science, no matter how done, has access to a higher truth than anything or anyone else is what some call “scientific fundamentalism” – a blinkered belief in the “higher power” of science that has the potential to be as destructive as any other fundamentalism. When officials claim the authority of independent science while not being accountable to the principles of independent science such as peer review; disinterest; scientific curiosity; the willingness to be wrong; interest in exceptions; interest in an argument without logical contradictions; interest in thinking about paradigms, their approach to science is not science, but the capture of scientific authority.

Fourth: Nature is not separate from society. Numbers are no more representative than words

This is the Anthropocene moment in which humans affect planetary ecological and geological systems. To hold to the division of science from social science is no longer useful: not in any discipline. To imagine that numbers are neutral representations just because they are numbers is a fiction, not a fact. Figures are useful: but they need to be able to represent complexity, not reduce it to a single index – much less to undisclosed data. In a democracy, science is there to facilitate agreement, not shut down the discussion that might lead to an agreement.

Fifth: The necessity of a science that is accountable

Public discussion and involvement is needed in complex situations like that at Zandvliet where available knowledge clearly does not provide sufficient understanding to be able to address a complex health emergency. Environmental governance needs to “ground-truth” its numbers, and adjust the forms of data collection into research that is scientifically accountable; that is triangulated across different kinds of data; that includes talking to people. Water governance by a single figure that purports to fulfil a mandate is inadequate. The collection of monitoring data needs review and independence.

An example: City engineers’ belief in the efficacy of their models is an effect of what it is to be trained to be an engineer. But in a governing position, as an engineer, it is not enough to only think like an engineer: the on-the-ground efficacy needs to be known. For example, while City engineers were adamant that the sludge from Zandvliet treatment works goes by truck to landfill because that is how the system was designed, a report compiled by an official from the Department of Environmental Affairs in October 2018 noted that the plant manager, who is named in the report, said that farmers collect the sludge to spread on their fields.

Yet that sludge is highly toxic, containing every single chemical in every single supermarket, household and factory floor in south-eastern Cape Town. Putting that in the soil puts it in the food chain – terrestrial and marine, farms and ocean. Perhaps this is why the False Bay levels of chemical pollutants are so high.

Sixth: The necessity of governance that acknowledges the need for a paradigm shift

South African governance, in the 1990s, in fisheries and in water and in so many other fields, shifted to techno-scientific management at the very moment that liberation was supposed to happen. It was somehow believed, at the time, that governance by numbers would be neutral, independent, and objective. That is not the case. It is a necessity for communities to be involved in science discussions: ground-truthing; interpreting; raising issues.

In order to create an environmental justice capable of building an alternative to the ecological disaster that is our Anthropocene, it is equally necessary to be able to create spaces for officials to learn; to change their minds, and their paradigms and practices. The Anthropocene needs a science that considers futures; that thinks systemically and not in silos; that is accountable to future generations, geology and ecology. Science in a time of systemic and infrastructural environmental crisis cannot be reduced to managing risk, or being reactive.

The university system, globally, has taught people to think in silos. It has created Towers of Babel. In Cape Town water governance, this illusion that science and society are separate currently means that officials and citizens cannot even begin to be around the same table, let alone have discussions around the same issue.

What is needed is much more than “stakeholder engagement” – a way of thinking that locks people into a particular identity and with particular interests that they can never escape. What is needed – in the university and in the City – is to extend the transformative research processes that are emerging on South African campuses, in order to build more flexible, more humane, wiser approaches to science-based environmental management. A science based on dignity and respect will be capable of justice-based, restorative environmental work. DM

Lesley Green is Professor of Anthropology and Deputy Director of Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town.

Nikiwe Solomon is a lecturer in Anthropology and Environmental Humanities at the University of Cape Town, where she is completing her PhD on the Kuils River and its communities.

Jo Barnes is an epidemiologist and senior lecturer emeritus at the University of Stellenbosch.

Leslie Petrik is Senior Professor of Environmental Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape.

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