The relevance of diatoms for water quality assessment in South Africa: A position paper

  • WR Harding DH Environmental Consulting, PO Box 5429, Helderberg 7135, South Africa
  • CGM Archibald KZN Aquatic Ecosystems, 18 Ashcombe Park, 150 Prospect Hall Road, Durban North 4051, South Africa
  • JC Taylor School of Environmental Sciences (Division Botany), North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus, Private Bag X6001, Potchefstroom 2520, South Africa
Keywords: diatoms, water quality, Cholnoky, Archibald, biotic indices


Water quality assessment protocols based on the use of diatoms are now well developed and their value substantiated at an international level. The use of diatoms is not designed or intended to be a “rapid” technology. The detailed level of information generated from the procedure outweighs perceived disadvantages of the additional time required for sample preparation and analysis to species level. The method is applicable across a wide range of aquatic ecosystem types, namely freshwater, brackish, and estuarine, and is inclusive of both lentic and lotic environments, wetlands and their associated damp, marginal and littoral zones. Details provided by diatom assemblages support palaeoecological investigations, historical reconstruction of water quality and the determination of prevailing water quality conditions. Deliberate determination of responses to management strategies or impacts arising from a variety of anthropogenic activities can be achieved via the simple expedient of retrieving living material from introduced artificial substrates. Previous studies in South Africa and elsewhere have shown that on a site-by-site basis the use of diatoms provides a fine level of diagnostic resolution of the causes underlying changes in water quality and environmental condition.
The South African Diatom Collection (“the Collection”), a repository of diatom specimens and records that spans the length and breadth of this country, contains an as-yet unutilised wealth of ecological and taxonomic information. More importantly, the historical data analysis records provide an insight into water quality conditions prevailing 40 to 50 years ago – in many cases prior to the “development” of many of our rivers, streams and wetlands. The real value of its existence underpins the great potential for renewed attention to the value of diatom-based approaches to water quality assessments. In addition, the Collection provides a ready-made foundation on which a locally relevant tool for water quality assessment may be established to augment the current use of invertebrate indicators.
It is now appropriate that the full potential of the use of diatoms in water quality assessments, and the information contained in the Collection, be developed and utilised for water quality assessment in South Africa.
Key words: diatoms, water quality, Cholnoky, Archibald, biotic indices
Water SA Vol.31(1) 2005: 41-46

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