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Scientists and NGOs have launched a petition calling for the reinstatement of a respected South African water expert who has been suspended from his job at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Anthony Turton, a fellow of CSIR, was suspended after criticising both the council and the government for failing to address the impending water crisis in the country. The petitioners have called his suspension an "attempted silencing of the truth about South Africa's water crisis" and a "major attack on the constitutional right to freedom of expression".

Turton's troubles began last month (18 November) with a paper he had written for the CSIR's Science Real and Relevant conference in Pretoria.

The paper – the keynote address for a session entitled 'A Clean South Africa' –argued that the country had already run out of surplus water and that because most rivers and dams were highly polluted, they had lost the ability to dilute effluents. He predicted that the country was headed for a crisis that could not only affect its economic growth and its development but also lead to social unrest.

Turton said that failures in areas of water research were "bordering on the criminally negligent".

He added that the government faced the choice of accepting that its Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AGISA) was not attainable, or rethinking how it could "mobilise the science, engineering and technology capacity" of the country to support its targets.

CSIR withdrew Turton's paper just before he was due to deliver it, saying it contained unsubstantiated claims and used disturbing photographs of this year's xenophobic attacks in the country.

His suspension occurred a few days later, after he talked to the media about the withdrawal of his paper. CSIR said that there were "internal avenues" available to him for objecting to the withdrawal of the paper.

CSIR has stressed that Turton was not suspended for his views but for bringing the council into disrepute. But the move has been widely interpreted as an effort to silence him.

In a statement to SciDev.Net today, Turton said, "All I can say is that I have been stunned by the rapid escalation of this issue, and also the extreme aggression that has been shown towards me from the first moment it began. I simply do not understand it even two weeks after the fact."

Jane Duncan, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute in Johannesburg, said she believed the cause of the problem was also discussed in Turton's paper — namely the "corporatisation" of research institutes.

With the reduction in state funding, there is increasing pressure on [institutions] to find private donors, a move that can compromise the integrity of research, Duncan told SciDev.Net.

Duncan compared the case with the recent suspension of a physicist and mathematician at the University of KwaZulu Natal, saying that "academic freedom is becoming a more generalised problem in South Africa".