A sea of possibility

2013-01-15 00:00

USUALLY environmental impact assessments are done once developers have decided they would like to “claim” a piece of nature’s garden. The consequences of this often invasive decision are then considered after the proposal has been made.

But a new strategic environmental assessment (SEA) commissioned by the uMgungundlovu District Municipality gives citizens and planners the chance to plan our future environment around the use of suitable land and the prioritisation of water. Hopefully, it may also shape the way we think about the environment.

The SEA was completed in December by the Isikhungusethu Environmental Services for the uMgungundlovu District Municipality Planning and Services Department. The comprehensive and detailed report is eye-opening.

It is also a reminder that we should take our environment seriously because when it is ignored the consequences or ramifications can be serious — floods, water-borne disease caused by polluted rivers and even famine. The SEA covers the current and future land and water condition of the seven local municipalities that make up the uMgungundlovu district.

Kevan Zunckel, the project manager, said it took 18 months to complete the research and investigations, and had been a very interesting process. “We would like this report to be a motivation for change. Those of us in the environmental field are crucially aware of the importance of preserving the environment, but for others, it may not be at the forefront of their minds.

“If we protect our environment, we become resilient in many respects and our quality of life improves. But if we damage the environment, we suffer the consequences. The environment must be considered when any decision is made.”

The report has emphasised the five key priorities of the National Strategy for Sustainable Development which are:

• enhancing systems for integrated planning;

• sustaining ecosystems and the efficient use of natural resources;

• moving towards a green economy;

• building sustainable communities; and

• responding to climate change.

Zunckel said they would especially like to emphasise the many employment opportunities of a green economy. There are many jobs that could be created by creating and managing the natural environment, which delivers vital life-support services, such as clean water, food, medicines, building materials and air purification.

While traditionally the focus has been on the industrial and building sectors for job creation, Zunckel says that green-oriented jobs could provide work that would be sustainable and healthier for the environment.

“If you look at jobs like those in the mining sector — the work is very dangerous, the men are not working in a healthy environment and they are depleting a non-renewable resource. But if you gave those men an opportunity to work outdoors clearing river catchment areas of sediment and asking them to restore wetlands to filter out pollutants, they would be working in a much healthier environment and helping the Earth recover.”

The SEA focuses on the Umgeni River catchment, including sections of the Mooi River and Mkomazi River catchment areas. Rainfall seeps into the catchments, recharging the water table, then flowing into the tributaries and streams that feed into the Umgeni River which flows down to Durban.

The water quality in the Umgeni River has been an area of concern in recent years, and the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct) educator Penny Rees and her team of volunteers did a river walk from the source of the Umgeni to the river mouth last year.

They tested the water quality along the route and only in one area was the water quality score healthy. Zunckel says: “In the stretch between Albert Falls Dam and Nagle Dam, the water was good and that was as a direct result of a Duct project where it was rehabilitating the riparian area. This shows that a small investment can yield a large result.”

Water delivery is a huge focus of the uMgungundlovu District Municipality and this means it must be held accountable for the health of the water and rivers in its area. eThekwini spends approximately R100 million per month chemically treating its water and this can be significantly reduced by investing a fraction of the amount in the restoration of catchments, wetlands and riparian areas, which would improve the water quality in the catchment areas.

It would also create jobs in the process. Their first step of the SEA process was a status quo analysis to see what kind of situation the district is in. They discovered that approximately 50% of the land in the uMgungundlovu district has been transformed from its natural state.

There are two types of transformation — soft transformation are those areas that have been changed for the purposes of farming or agriculture and hard transformation would be the land that had been totally transformed for urban or industrial development.

In the case of hard transformation, this land cannot function naturally or perform natural life-support systems and this results in occurrences like flood damage. Even the land which was considered to be in a natural state needs to be restored or rehabilitated.

The status quo report shows that generally, conventional farming methods are damaging the soil, and the use of inorganic chemicals leads to eutrophication of the rivers. This means the chemicals flow off into the rivers after the rains and cause nitrate and phosphate pollution.

Zunckel says there needs to be more integration between civil engineering and environmental management. “We need to work towards finding solutions that are sustainable.”

The Spring Grove Dam is planned to supply water to match the rising demand, but it will, in fact, only fill this need for an estimated three years before demand outstrips supply, and it is the water users who are paying for its construction through levied water tariffs.

Zunckel says the ancient water infrastructure in some areas is causing a leakage factor of 40%; i.e. up to 40 litres out of every 100 litres of water are being lost.

He says the efficient use of water (rainwater harvesting, low-flow shower heads, drip irrigation and reticulation of water, repairing and replacing old pipes) should be a key priority. The Smithfield and Impendle dams, which are planned for the future on the Mkomazi River, will also be temporary solutions if the bigger picture is not addressed and on an individual household level, there is a lot that can be done to reduce demand.

In the process of compiling the SEA, the project team engaged with the district’s Environmental Forum in order to generate an understanding of what people would like to see as a desired state for our natural environment. Zunckel recalls: “One of the forum members said they wished that the Duzi River water would be clean and safe as in previous years when it used to host an annual gala.”

Zunckel says that this is achievable as there are high-profile examples of where this has been done; eg: the Thames that flows through London and the catchment areas that supply water to the city of New York.

Zunckel says while their objectives may seem unattainable in contrast to the current situation, the SEA has a 40 to 50-year vision. Once completed, the SEA will be followed by the development of five-year action plans (Strategic Environmental Management Plan — SEMP) in collaboration with strategic partners. This helps to take the district towards the achievement of its vision in bite-sized chunks.

He said that the success of the SEMP will depend on a combination of improved enforcement of existing environmental legislation as well as derivation of incentives to promote sustainability. As the district’s legal mandate is limited, implementation of the SEA and SEMP will be done in close collaboration with strategic partners from other relevant departments.

The SEA team members have released the document to the public for critical review, and invite comment and recommendations before they submit their final revised report to the Project Steering Committee for approval.

Interested people wishing to engage with this process can e-mail Dee Walker at dee@isik.co.za

You can also visit the team and chat about the findings at two open-house meetings, which are scheduled at the Fern Hill Hotel on January 30, any time from 2 pm to 7 pm or at the District Municipality’s Council Chambers, 242 Langalibalele Street, Pietermaritzburg, on January 31, any time from 2 pm to 7 pm.

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