Sani gravel ‘is better’

2014-05-26 00:00

THE government has decided to tar the one road in KZN that is actually safer and more profitable as a “bad” dirt road, according to tourism experts.

While the provincial Transport MEC Willies Mchunu has welcomed the ruling by national Environment Affairs Minister Edna Molewa in favour of tarring the road up Sani Pass, the Sani Wildlife branch of Wessa, representing the local communities, is “devastated” by the decision.

Local 4x4 tour operators have claimed that — in addition to promoting the adventurous nature of the mountain access point into Lesotho — a properly maintained dirt road is not only safer under ice conditions, but also forces private motorists to drive cautiously.

An initial scoping report had proposed six alternatives, ranging from “doing nothing” to driving a tunnel through the top of the mountain. The KZN Department of Transport’s (DoT) preferred option was alternative “five”: a tarred hard surface. Following the release of a draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in 2011, most of the specialist studies recommended alternative “three”, which called for a gravel surface together with improved road drainage. The latter was approved by the Environmental Affairs Department (DEA), who issued an environmental authorisation to that effect on July 2, 2013.

The subsequent appeal against this decision by the KZN DoT and Ezemvelo 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).

On May 15 the DEA overturned its own decision and ruled that the tarring option go ahead.

According to Mchunu, the KZN DoT’s appeal was based on the importance of meeting commitments of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa in 2005 to improve commercial, social and economic opportunities between the two countries through increased accessibility between the two countries. “From an environmental perspective, it makes economic sense to upgrade the road from gravel to tar as gravel roads require regular maintenance every two years,” said Mchunu. “Furthermore, retaining the road in its gravel state will actually negatively impact the surrounding environment.”

The initial decision by the DEA was hailed by the Sani Wildlife branch of Wessa as a vindication of the EIA process. It said its reversal was “devasting news”.

In a statement issued by Russel Suchet on behalf of Sani Wildlife branch of Wessa, representing the local communities, (including the SDCTO and community tourism operators in eastern Lesotho) he said the “vast majority of these communities believed that all the specialist reports commissioned as part of the comprehensive EIA process over the past six years had shown clearly that a hard surface upgrade of Sani Pass would indeed rob our area of one of its major tourist attractions, thereby seriously damaging the tourism industry on both sides of the border”.

In the statement, Suchet said the minister had “advanced no compelling reasons as to why she has altered the well-thought out decision her own department issued last year”.

“The core issues of access, the environment and the tourism and trade impacts have not been comprehensively addressed in this document, and those are the issues around which this decision should be evaluated.”

Suchet said the minister’s decision refers to only one specialist study, “the so called Broader Economic Study”, which had been “discredited”. “It suggests to us that the real issues in the massive EIA report were not fully considered by the minister in reaching her decision.”

Nor had it been “conclusively demonstrated” that a hard surface for the Sani Pass would bring large benefits to substantial numbers of people, said Suchet.

“Then the negative impacts to the local tourism industry (and hence the whole local economy) could have been justified on the basis of ‘for the greater good’.”

Responding to Mchunu’s statement, Suchet said the MEC showed a “complete lack of understanding” of Wessa’s argument. “It is being painted as ‘tour operator/4x4 owner’ vs ‘the local communities’ issue, and this is not, and never has been, the case.

“The alternative we have championed allows the same level of access as a hard surface, and if our idea of a dedicated permanent maintenance team would be implemented, a gravel surface would probably allow more days of access per year than a hard surface — which becomes treacherous in icy conditions far quicker than a gravel surface.”

Wessa will now consult with stakeholders in both the Southern Drakensberg and Lesotho as to what further action “can be taken to save our iconic Sani Pass, which, as a gravel road through magnificent, unspoilt scenery, is indeed our goose which lays our golden egg”.

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