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SAEON's monitoring and research results inform policy

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It would be important for SAEON to continue monitoring the Selati and Olifants rivers even after measures have been taken to curb the pollution

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SAEON will continue to monitor the associated physical and biological attributes of the toxic red tide in order to improve our understanding of this phenomenon

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"It was SAEON's widely distributed physical presence and ongoing observations that allowed us to respond to two extraordinary events, significantly happening virtually simultaneously at the northern and southern extremes of South Africa." - Johan Pauw

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

I have no doubt that the readers of this edition of SAEON eNews will again be impressed by the scope and extent of SAEON’s work.

While we are still structured according to the three pillars of the SAEON mandate - observation, information and education - we are clearly becoming stronger in relation to policy. In the medium term therefore, I am looking forward to a scenario in which SAEON could adopt a fourth pillar related to policy and management advice. This will of course be commensurate with the SAEON vision statement and flow from SAEON’s environmental monitoring and research.

Several of the articles in this edition of the newsletter report on environmental observations that should clearly be considered in environmental policy and decision making in due course. SAEON is indeed producing 'science for society' on many fronts. Although not reported on in this edition, we also produce 'science with society' - by way of involving communities and volunteers in our monitoring programmes.

The ecology-policy interface

This begs the question as to how SAEON should address the ecology-policy interface. It would be inappropriate for SAEON, as a publicly funded entity, to take on a "green activist" role whenever there is an environmental disaster, as reported in the first two articles in this issue. Our credibility and legitimacy in the public eye would certainly suffer. In some cases the offending party may be another public entity and since SAEON does not have a regulatory function, it is in no position to publicly discredit another public entity. So it should be agreed that any lobbying by SAEON should happen behind closed doors and with full disclosure of the relevant data, possible scenarios, potential responses and levels of uncertainty.

The involvement of the Blue Scorpions in the Selati River pollution event indeed points to national environmental policy being invoked to address a local problem. While SAEON has coincidentally become involved in a policy process, we managed to stay clear of any media reporting in full recognition of the fact that we ultimately do have a duty to report our role and findings to the public once legal procedures have been completed. Our immediate role has been to gather and analyse reliable data and arrive at plausible explanations that would not only inform legal action against the polluter, but also assist with corrective procedures to prevent future disasters.

It would be important for SAEON to continue monitoring the Selati and Olifants rivers even after measures have been taken to curb the pollution - in order to inform on the success or not of these measures. However, SAEON is not funded to be responsive to human-driven catastrophic events like this one and would depend on receiving a funded mandate from the Blue Scorpions to be able to continue.

Toxic red tide - predicting future outbreaks

The situation with the toxic red tide between East London and Wilderness is obviously different because we are looking at what seems to be a natural phenomenon resulting from a large infrequent event. A systemic study was required to investigate the cause(s) and impact(s) of the event and SAEON will continue to use its own resources to monitor the associated physical and biological attributes in order to improve our understanding of this phenomenon. This will put us in a better position to predict future outbreaks and to contribute to the conceptualisation of measures that society may need to adapt to the consequences of the red tide.

Importantly, it was SAEON's widely distributed physical presence and ongoing observations that allowed us to respond to both these extraordinary events, significantly happening virtually simultaneously at the northern and southern extremes of South Africa. Our ongoing observations enabled us to benchmark the 'normal' status of a given natural system for comparison with the ‘abnormal’ status resulting from the respective causal factors.

Although it is not SAEON's mandate to monitor the South African environment at large, our mandate to conduct long-term environmental research evidently provides fortuitous opportunities to report and support decision-making with regard to local drastic events and general long-term trends, based on the data from our observation platforms in widely divergent systems.

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