Environmental Humanities and the Role of the Media: a Case of the Never-ending Struggle of Hartbeespoort Dam

Schools, educational and governmental programmes, and NGO’s are some of the sources which provide information on environmental issues (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:39). South Africans, according to studies however, are more often than not informed of such issues by means of news media. Unfortunately the South African public is ill-informed on various environmental concerns despite the relevance and importance of it (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:39).

The media plays an important role in influencing public opinion. It provides the basic foundations on environmental problems and subsequent solutions, even if the public does not believe every single piece of information provided by the news (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:39). By means of analysing environmental media one can better comprehend the public discourse. In addition, how the public learns about environmental issues, as well as the nature of the information that they access can be obtained through a media analysis (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:39).

Since stakeholders are often only preempted to act once they are under pressure from the public, it therefore becomes vital that the public be made aware of these issues (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:39). To increase public awareness the media needs to assume the role as catalyst. But to identify how that role can be portrayed effectively, it is important to determine how the public is represented with information on these issues. This may provide answers to why the public reacts the way they do (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:39-40).

Most would agree that the media plays a major role in shaping public opinion. Therefore it is safe to assume that public opinion is represented in this way, and constitutes a complicated relationship between public opinion and the media (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41). Public opinion is formed by the media through selective emphasis – emphasising specific views and narratives. In addition, media is not or does not always want to provide enough context around particular issues. The media is very influential and holds the power to decide what and how much information is presented to the public (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41).

However, the “obtrusiveness” of an issue is an important factor in determining the impact of the media (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41). Consequently not all environmental issues are equal and the people’s direct experience with an issue is rather a determining factor. In other words, the more direct the experience the people have with an issue, the less they have to depend on the media for information on it  (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41).

The common notion is that in order for media to be successful, “newsworthy” news is only newsworthy if it is new. Research on this issue presented important findings such as that stories that are relevant to people’s lives attract more attention, as well as “negative” stories with photogenic appeal (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41). Additionally, news agents would rather not report or follow-up on persistent problems but instead focuses on very particular happenings or events. Finally, the participation of an important individual or group, or even an influential nation determines whether an issue will gain attention (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41).

The responsibility that news and media should take is often argued. Some believe reporters need to be more accountable, for instance in educating the public (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41).This is however “controversial”, especially where environmental education is concerned. It cannot be denied that media plays a role in educating the public, to a certain degree, but they still present, very often, the dominant discourse, strengthening conformist ideas and behaviours (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:41-42).

Moreover, even though the media is viewed as a fact-presenting institution, it is still not completely objective and provides the viewpoint and perceptions of those who write on the issue, as well as those sources consulted for information. It is this not necessarily representative of the majority (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:42).

Certain environmental issues are popular topics in the media, especially natural disasters, but also includes environmental risks and crises. As a result, mass media is a key factor with regards to environmental issues and the recognition and interpretation of these issues (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:42).

It is not surprising that a direct link has been established between public response and the coverage of environmental issues (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:42).The amount of coverage has a direct effect on public “concern”. Consequently when media redirects its focus on another issue, so does the public’s concern. Since a great deal of news coverage related to environmental issues are on events and not persistent problems, many mounting environmental problems disappear from public radar (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:42).

The unfortunate consequence of this revolving pattern between the media and the public is that the public very soon becomes saturated from a constant bombardment of the latest problems and issues. The result is a public losing interest, bored with certain particular environmental issues (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:42).

Even though the media is capable of creating comprehension of environmental issues in a positive manner, they still, more often than not, have a negative approach on these issues. The focus is often not on positive solutions but on political inadequacies and environmental disasters. However, in recent times controversial suggestions on the roles that media could and should play have been made, such as that of advocates or problem solvers (Grant & Lawhon, 2014:43).

To illustrate just how the media operates with regards to environmental issues I have decided to illustrate the gaps that exist with an example. The example covers three online articles on pollution in the Hartbeespoort Dam. Media can however bridge the gaps that exist and are able to play a more active role in bringing people to action through a relatively new movement – Environmental Humanities (EH). In the process of analysing the online news articles on the Hartbeespoort Dam I will use the Environmental Humanities approach to base my analysis on as well as to critique the articles.

EH Analysis & Critique

Environmental Humanities is an interdisciplinary movement consisting of thousands of researchers across the world and involves the study of the environment, art, philosophy and literature, as well as history (Holm & Adamson, 2015:978). Because there are so many diverse issues that exist it is difficult to establish common voice and proper dialogue on so many issues, and Environmental Humanities (EH) aims to overcome this obstacle by means of creating a platform for dialogue and to drive solutions where environmental challenges are concerned (Holm & Adamson, 2015:978).

Figure 1: Image of the Hartbeespoort Dam taken by Bruce Gorton for Times LIVE (2015).

Below is a table which provides an overview of the news articles’ contents and gives a basic idea what the issue is about, who and what the drivers of change are and what can be done, and how (if applicable).

WHAT IS HAPPENING? WHO AND WHAT ARE THE DRIVERS FOR CHANGE? WHAT CAN BE DONE? HOW?
Pollution of the Harbeespoort Dam, in North West Province

Presence of sewage and nuclear waste

Dysfunctional water resource

Granting of Northern Sewage works exemption of  “legal”  violation of Water Act

Pelindaba Nuclear Plant dumps nuclear waste

Water shortages in Hartbeespoort Dam area

Department of Water Affairs and Forestry

Madibeng Municipality

Pelindaba Nuclear Plant

Water hyacinth and blue-green Microcystis algae

Mining activities from the West Rand, Gauteng

 

Fixing of sewage pumps

 

 

The “Great Acceleration”

Human technologies, consumption and power have played an enormous role in Global Change in the last 70 years or so (Holm & Adamson, 2015:980). Cultural, social and economic developments are intricately linked to the “Great Acceleration” (Holm & Adamson, 2015:980). In the analysis of the articles, do the drivers for change relate to the Great Acceleration? What are the political, institutional, cultural and societal factors that drive the change?

With regards to the Hartbeespoort Dam one can indeed see how the issues of pollution are related to the Great Acceleration – the pollution in the dam occurs because raw sewage is spilling into the dam due to ineffective control measures that was supposed to be undertaken by the Department of Water Affairs as well as the Municipality. Great neglect of the sewage plants and pumps have created a situation where sewage spills into the dam which has led to the overgrowth of aquatic plants and organisms that is disturbing the natural order around the dam.

In addition, nuclear waste from the Pelindaba Nuclear plant is also being dumped into the dam. It was permitted by the various Departments but it has since escalated into an even bigger problem. Human activities related to technology, power and consumption have indeed played a role – the Nuclear Plant, mining activities in the West Rand and residential developments along the dam, have all contributed to the pollution of the dam.

Solutions and the “New Human Condition”

The “New Human Condition” is the concept which refers to how human beings respond to environmental challenges. It also refers to how people choose to recognise and deal with consequences of environmental challenges. Responses such as despair and denial or action are some of the ’emotions’ related to the New Human Condition (Holm & Adamson, 2015:983).

Figure 2: Image of workers at the Hartbeespoort Dam, taken by Daniel Born for Times LIVE (2013).

In the case of the Hartbeespoort Dam, how does the absence or presence of solutions relate to the New Human Condition? From at least two of the articles it was clear that a great deal of despair existed. There was a sense of hopelessness because to get the stakeholders involved, especially those who were supposed to have taken responsibility from the start (such as the Department of Water Affairs and the Pelindaba Nuclear plant), did not come to the table. To fix the pollution of the dam involved many stakeholders and had significant reliance on capital investment. Coordination of the stakeholders and the sources needed to address the pollution were clearly lacking, as well as a will to act.

Engaging the Corporate Sector

From the analysis it was apparent that the solutions proposed had to happen at a much higher level – action from the Madibeng Municipality, the Department of Water Affairs and the Pelindaba Nuclear Plant are all powerful institutions. The pollution caused in the dam was not something the residents and local businesses of the area could undertake on their own, except to put pressure on the relevant bodies to fix the water pumps.

To put pressure on those that need to take responsibility for the pollution of the dam, it is possible for the local community to partner with businesses in the area related to tourism. Since the dam is a popular tourist attraction and the area’s livelihood depends on the economic benefits from tourism, a partnership could indeed be created to put pressure on, for instance, the Department of Water Affairs. Pressure groups such as Afriforum (who have been involved) can also be approached – this way residents can get legal advice for example on how to proceed to ensure the issue of pollution is addressed.

Solutions and the Public

Unfortunately the solution of clearing up the pollution at the Harbeespoort Dam is not so easy and the public cannot themselves fix it. Expertise and money are needed to clean up the dam from the water hyacinth, as well as to fix the pumps. The nuclear waste from Pelindaba is just as tricky. However, as mentioned earlier, communities and local business can partner to put pressure on the local authorities. Individuals can also take responsibility to make sure that no additional pollution happens at the dam – pick up litter is a good start.

Final thoughts…

The EH analysis provided some insight into how the news articles selected focused much on the problems of the pollution of the dam, and not so much on steps that could have been taken to address the challenges. There was a clear gap with regards to action. Action-orientated reporting might have accelerated the efforts to clean-up the dam.

SOURCES CONSULTED

Gorton, B. 2015. Hartbeespoort algae causing water shortage. Times LIVE. [O]. Available: http://www.timeslive.co.za/scitech/2015/01/16/hartbeespoort-algae-causing-water-shortage Accessed: 3 April 2016.

Grant, S & Lawhon, M. 2014. Reporting on rhinos: analysis of the newspaper coverage of rhino poaching. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education 30:39-52.

Holm, P et al. 2015. Humanities for the Environment – a manifesto for research and action. Humanities 4:977-992.

Mouton, S. 2013. Popular dam a ‘desert’. Times LIVE. [O]. Available: http://www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2013/10/10/popular-dam-a-desert Accessed: 3 April 2016.

Steyn, AJ. 2010. What’s really wrong with Hartbeespoort Dam? Environment: News, Articles, Legislation. [O]. Available: http://www.environment.co.za/poisoning-carcinogens-heavy-metals-mining/whats-really-wrong-with-hartebeespoort-dam.html Accessed: 3 April 2016.

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Author: ournatureourfuture

I am currently studying towards a BA degree in Visual Studies at the University of Pretoria. I hold a BCom (Communication Management) degree and obtained my Honours in Marketing Management in 2009 (also from the University of Pretoria).

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