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South Africa 'at risk of cholera'

South African boy collecting water
Many South Africans do not have access to running water

A leading South African scientist has warned that gross underinvestment in water management has left it at risk of a cholera outbreak.

Five people have died from cholera in South Africa, after crossing from Zimbabwe, where a recent outbreak has killed more than 300 people.

Anthony Turton told the BBC that unless South Africa increased its spending on water, it was heading for disaster.

He was recently sacked from a state body over his report on water safety.

Mr Turton was suspended by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) last week after being prevented from presenting a paper in which he concludes that South Africa is "heading for a significant crisis in the water sector".

His report said:

• Investment in South Africa's water quality has fallen sharply since the 1980s

• Decades of mining for gold and other minerals has left much of the water supply heavily polluted with heavy metals and other pollutants

• Many municipalities across South Africa have no qualified engineers.

Mr Turton said the situation was still very different to that in Zimbabwe but compared it to a plane losing height.

"Unless we alter course, we are heading for a disaster," he said.

Cholera is a water-borne disease, which spreads rapidly if water supplies are contaminated - there is no evidence that this is the case at the moment in South Africa.

Skills shortage

In the paper, Mr turton outlines the issues that have led to this situation, saying that South Africa has failed to maintain its investment in the infrastructure needed to maintain a clean water supply.

In the decades since the 1980s, spending on treatment works, pump stations, reservoirs and other items has fallen sharply.

In the 1980s it hit 40,000m rand ($4,080m).

By the 1990s this had fallen to around 17,000m rand ($1,734m) and then to about 4,000m rand ($408m in the 2000s.

graph of south africa's water investment

This fall, says Mr Turton, was matched by a skills shortage. Qualified engineers, most of whom were white, were not replaced by younger, men and women.

Many are now close to retirement age, and younger whites, says Mr Turton, have been discouraged by affirmative action and many have simply left the country.

As a result, Mr Turton argues, South Africa is faced with increasing problems of water quality.

The CSIR has issued a statement denying reports that it had gagged Mr Turton and that he was suspended for what are called "inappropriate statements" to the media.

The CSIR says Mr Turton's presentation used inappropriate material, including an image of a person being executed by a burning tire placed around their necks during the 1980s.

They also question his scientific argument.

Water tested

But a number of organisations have come to Mr Turton's support.

A petition launched by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment described Dr Turton as a "present-day giant" and called for him to be reinstated.

South Africa's Minister of Health Barbara Hogan said South Africa was not facing a severe cholera crisis, but said the country was dealing with the disease as a matter of urgency, with nearly 200 cases reported so far.

Local government officials said the quality of water at the town of Musina and the crossing of Beit Bridge had been tested and that it showed no signs of being contaminated with cholera.

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