Hemel en Aarde environmental disaster - Brucifire Surf Reports

Hemel en Aarde environmental disaster

Underground fires and erosion in Hemel en Aarde

Hemel en Aarde environmental disaster

Hemel en Aarde environmental disaster: Professor Tony Turton analyses yet another transgression of a municipality on nature.

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State Failure

Those that follow my writing and media engagement will know that I often speak of state failure. I define state failure as the inability of an organ of government – national, provincial or municipal – to coherently develop an appropriate response to emerging crises by implementing a coherent and adequately resourced strategy.

In short, state failure is about the ability of an organ of state to self-correct.
We see this playing out in many places. The relentless collapse of Eskom, the systematic destruction of the railways and post office, and the growing tsunami of sewage are all examples of state failure at different levels.

We typically associate state failure with the ruling ANC, but is this an accurate generalization?
I will now present a simple case study to show that state failure is an all pervasive problem across the entire country, and at its core is the apparent unwillingness of any organ of state to perform a Root Cause Analysis (RCA). In the absence of a RCA, inadequately diagnosed problems are typically met with an inappropriate response. This merely drives up the cost of any given crisis, because taxes are misallocated, but it also impacts on investor confidence, and the ability of any individual to generate wealth.

The Onrus River flows through the Hemel en Aarde Valley, ending in an estuary at Hermanus. The river is short, originating from rainfall occurring along a mountain range running parallel to the coast. Groundwater has been the main source since the first settlement. The name of the town is derived from Hermanus Pieters Fonteyn, the original source of water in the 1800s.

The landscape is host to the fynbos biome, a unique ecosystem with a wide biodiversity. There are more plant species in that biome than exist in many countries of the world. Part of the uniqueness is the winter rainfall, the impact of which is mitigated by orographic rain – water condensing as warm moist air from the sea is forced to rise over the mountains. The other side of the mountain is the desert of the Karoo, and the seaward side is called the Garden Route.

It’s a piece of paradise sandwiched between the ocean and a desert, hence the name of the valley – Hemel en Aarde (Heaven and Earth). Central to this piece of paradise is a peatbed. This is a rich black deposit of sediment and decayed organic matter that has been trapped in the roots of plants known as macrophytes. These are unique plants that constitute a wetland. A peatbed is a specific type of wetland, often acidic in nature, typically containing the preserved remains of living creatures that died there thousands of years ago. The peat preserves those organic remains, so we find what is known as a Bog Body (Google the term) in many of the peatbeds of the world.

The Onrus peatbed is relatively young, with deposits aged between 3000 to 40000 years. They predate all modern human habitation and are always culturally and ecologically significant wherever they occur. This peatbed defines the ecological integrity of the Onrus estuary, around which the entire local economy of Hermanus has grown. If those peatbeds are destroyed, then the very foundation of the entire aquatic ecosystem fails. The investment value of land also fails.

In the 1970s the De Bos Dam was built to provide water for the growing town. The beautiful landscape and unique ecosystem became the draw card for mostly wealthy people who wanted a holiday home. The estuary was open, deep and tidal, becoming the very centre of leisure activity.

But the dam altered the flood pulse of the river. It converted the natural “heartbeat” of the peatbed into a highly modified but feeble trickle. The peatbed began dying, but death of such complex living things is slow and tortured. It was a death by a thousand cuts so to speak. The outer edges of the deep peatbed began to dry up. One day the dry peat, rich in methane producing organic matter, burst into flame. The fire burnt slowly but relentlessly in the depths of the peatbed. It could not easily be extinguished as it was underground, so a massive effort was needed to get the fire under control.

The fire destroyed the lower reach of the peatbed, and a massive storm washed most of what survived away. A peatbed that took thousands of years to form, was destroyed in a series of events, starting with a fire and ending with a raging flood. Millenia of natural deposition changed in the blink of an eye, after Man altered the flood pulse.

With the peatbed destroyed, the uncontrolled floodwaters eroded the foundation of the road in many places, so repair will cost hundreds of millions of Rand. More importantly, the lagoon filled with sediment, transforming itself from a deep open water that was tidal, to a shallow mudplain onto which reeds started to grow. Those reeds are a natural phenomenon, being the source of the roots that create peat in the first place. In 3000 years time the Onrus lagoon will become a peatbed like the Hemel and Aarde Valley used to be until a few years ago.

Angry citizens are demanding action. Riparian properties adjacent to the waters edge are estimated to be 1,4 million Rand more valuable than a property in the second row of houses. That value was defined by the presence of open water. The reeds, now consolidating the mud and sediment deposited by the recent flood, are regarded a nuisance, so they are being destroyed. Glyphosate, a highly controversial chemical, is being used to kill the wetland plants.

This is a war between rich landowners and the damaged ecosystem. This is a manifestation of what the French philosopher Rene Descartes described as Man being “master and owner of Nature”.
Caught in the middle is the state, at all three levels. The national level intervention throws restrictive paperwork at the local people trying to halt the disaster – one landowner refers to Mr Plod the Policeman from the Noddy series putting his hand up and shouting “Stop in the name of the law” – but is unable to fix what’s broken on its own.

The provincial level is uncertain about what to do so it just obfuscates. The municipal level is sending confused signals – one set to the tourists saying we will have a blue flag beach, and a different set to land owners on whose financial flows everything depends, saying they can nuke the encroaching reeds with chemicals – so tensions ratchet up as people migrate into camps hostile to one another. Riparian property is losing its investment value, so glyphosate is being authorised to wage chemical warfare against Nature, that is simply trying to heal the damage caused by the destruction of the flood pulse in the 1970s.

Nowhere is a RCA evident, so inappropriate solutions are being applied to an inadequately defined problem.

This is a classic case of the inability to self-correct, so we see empirical evidence of state failure laid bare for all the world to see. This is playing out in a province that claims to have the best run municipalities in the country.

By Professor Anthony Turton

Thank you Tony, for allowing us to feature your deeper understanding of nature and how we should be seeing it. These types of environmental disaster must be going on unchecked all the way throughout the land! – Sean

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