Make your impact

2010-05-04 00:00

IT is no news that all aspects of our environment are facing pressures which have never been experienced before. This is the result of a number of factors, not least of which is the intense pressure that humans place on our land, oceans and climate. We place extreme demands on our environment: our impetus for economic and social growth force rapid rates of land transformations, particularly in the form of urban development. South Africa’s focus on development unfortunately often comes at the expense of the environment and, as a result, our rich natural areas with a healthy climate are increasingly under threat.

Section 24 of the Constitution affords all South Africans the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well- being, and to have the environment protected for the benefit of current and future generations. We thus have an intrinsic responsibility to protect and conserve the environment in which we live. Currently, one of the most valuable tools we have to help us do this in the face of increased commercialisation and development is environmental impact assessments or EIAs.

Ultimately, the aim of an environmental impact assessment is to ensure that current developments are sustainable and do not detrimentally affect the natural environment and with that, people’s lives. In order for certain developments to get authorisation, an EIA is carried out to assess the potential effects and benefits of a proposed development on the environment. As many developments can be classified as irreversible, EIA offers a look-before-you-leap opportunity into the proposed development so as to avoid developments which will result in dire consequences in the future. The purpose of an EIA is:

• to ensure that environmental considerations are clearly addressed and incorporated into decision-making processes;

• to anticipate and avoid, minimise or offset the significant adverse biophysical, social and other relevant effects of development proposals;

• to protect the productivity and capacity of natural systems and the ecological processes that maintain their functions;

• to promote development that is sustainable and optimises resource use and management opportunities;

• to identify ways in which the development can be improved;

• to allow the public to have their say in how the environment is utilised and developed; and

• to provide information to decision-makers.

Carrying out an EIA is a democratic process which affords citizens the chance to practise their democratic right through public participation in decisions which impact on their environment. The aim of the public participation component is to convey balanced, unbiased information to all stakeholders, so that they can make informed decisions regarding the EIA. The way in which this information is collected and communicated, however, underpins its success or failure. EIAs are merely a democratic tool, and a tool is only as effective as the person who employs it. The developers, consultants or decision-making authorities, often view the legislated and detailed public participation process as an obstruction to their course of action — a thorn in their side. Politicians see EIAs as a waste of time and a development inhibitor, while many developers further see it as a waste of money. Mistrust between all EIA stakeholders often occurs, resulting in the EIA process being ridiculed and undermined which consequently impacts on their efficacy.

Too often, public participation in the EIA process is neglected, and in so doing the public’s right to participate in decision making that should promote the sustainable management of our environment is undermined. This is often because civil society generally does not have the expertise, understanding or resources to take part in and make meaningful contributions to decisions that impact on our social, economic and ecological environment. More often, interested and affected parties (I&APs) are not even able to recognise environmental risks let alone know their basic environmental rights.

A shortage of civil society capacity in EIAs and the fact that people invariably have little excess time to afford getting involved in an EIA, coupled with the poor notification afforded to EIAs, makes it very difficult for many citizens to engage in the process. There are also an ever increasing number of EIAs, many of which are barely publicised, so no one can pick up on every one that they may be interested in. Nonetheless, members of the public often get up in arms when they see the bulldozers moving in and the development commences, by which time the EIA process has already run its course and little is left to be done.

In light of this, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) has decided to tackle EIAs from different angles. WESSA is the only organisation in the country that has regional staff that are employed on a full-time basis to respond to as many EIAs as possible, in order to uphold the public’s interest as far as possible. Carolyn Shwegman from WESSA’s KwaZulu- Natal regional office alone submitted numerous comments on at least 180 new EIAs last year. Fully appreciating this feat requires seeing the voluminous nature of most EIAs. Resource constraints mean that WESSA can only employ a small number of people to this end though, and it is for this reason that the Environmental Capacity Building Programme was developed. The idea was to create a groundswell within civil society around EIA so that more people from the public would engage effectively in the process with confidence.

WESSA’s mission is to promote public participation in caring for the Earth. We thus encourage the public to get involved in EIA processes and have their voices heard in the struggle for conservation. You can start small, by getting involved in one EIA from start to finish to see how the process works. Any person may register as an interested and affected party in an EIA, regardless of how close they are to the location in question. For example, should people be concerned about the impact that the new proposed power line will have on the Karkloof Valley, they are entitled to register in the EIA process and raise any concerns they may have, regardless of whether they live in the affected area or even in Durban or Cape Town. Their registration and any comments or queries they have then have to be recorded and adequately addressed.

EIAs are thus by far the best opportunity citizens have to participate democratically in decision making which affects the environment: one of the only means by which they can have a say. If you do not get yourself into a position to make a difference to the environment for current and future generations, who will? Try it, get involved as you can make more of a difference than you think.

• Chris Galliers is a project manager at WESSA and runs the Environmental Impact Assessment Capacity Building Programme. Go to Home Conservation E.I.A for more information and contact details. EIA Project Sponsors Mazda Wildlife Fund, WWF-SA and the Mass Maasen Fund.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.