Sani Pass road tarring goes ahead

2014-05-21 00:00

TO tar or not to tar? That has been the ongoing debate with regard to the road up the Sani Pass that links KwaZulu-Natal with Lesotho.

Last year a Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) decision to gravel the surface following a Department of Transport (DoT) proposal to tar the road was appealed against by the KZN DoT and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, who both wanted the road to be tarred.

Now Environment Minister Edna Molewa has ruled on the appeal and authorised the upgrading of the road, approved with “a hardened road surface” thus overturning the original decision made by her department.

The DoT first proposed that the Sani Pass road be tarred all the way to the 2 865-metre high summit of the pass in 2005. Phase one of the project, involving the first 14 km of road, over relatively flat terrain, was quickly approved and work began in 2006. It took six years to complete and cost R200 million.

In 2007, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) process commenced for phase two — the 19 km section to the summit. A scoping report proposed six alternatives, ranging from “doing nothing” to driving a tunnel through the top of the mountain. The KZN DoT’s preferred option was alternative five: a tarred hard surface, but no tunnel.

Following the release of the draft EIA in 2011 most of the specialist studies recommended alternative three, which called for a gravel surface together with improved road drainage.

In the final report submitted to the DEA, KZN DóT recommended the hard surface go ahead.

However, the DEA opted for alternative three and accordingly issued an environmental authorisation to that effect on July 2.

The appeal by the KZN DoT and KZN Wildlife was opposed by the Southern Drakensberg Community Tourism Organisation (SDCTO) and the Sani Wildlife branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa).

At the time SDCTO chairperson Chris Wheeler said, “A gravel surface with improved drainage is the preferred option. To go with tar is not at all feasible in terms of cost and logistics.”

In her decision, Molewa said a gravel road would require “on going re-gravelling and the unsustainable practice of mining for road quarry”.

She also said that “hard-topping” the road would enable South Africa to meet its international obligations with regard to its neighbour Lesotho and that a “hardened surface” would see “economic benefits which will be experienced by a significantly greater proportion of people from South Africa and Lesotho” as opposed solely 4x4 drivers.

Wheeler said his position remained the same and that tarring the road will destroy the “sense of wilderness” that makes the Sani Pass a tourist draw card.

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