DA Debate on the Environment and Nature Conservation Budget Vote

Ismail Obaray, MPL

DA Spokesperson on Environment and Nature Conservation

Note: The following is an extract from the speech delivered by the DA Spokesperson on Environment and Nature Conservation, Hon. Ismail Obaray, during the Environment and Nature Conservation Budget Vote Debate today in the Northern Cape Provincial Legislature.

Allow me to begin by congratulating the honourable MEC on his maiden budget debate speech. As the Democratic Alliance, we look forward to working with him during his term and to seek answers together for the environmental challenges in the province.

Frankly speaking, financial constraints is probably the most severe challenge that the department faces. Let us look at the financial facts. This department receives only 1.1% of the provincial budget. It is a small allocation which is not enough to cover all the necessities. In fact, over the past seven years, the department could only fund 36% of the posts in its organogram. Even at the outer years of the current MTEF, the department only projects to fill 56% of its posts. Some of the vacant posts requires specialist skills, for which a specialist salary must be paid. So the department is currently caught in a paradox where it has an extremely high vacancy rate of 61%, but 68% of its budget is spent on salaries.

What effect does this have?

Quite simply that there is neither enough hands nor enough funds for the department to deliver its mandate. The bulk of this department’s budget should be going to the specialist functions to ensure conservation and compliance. Instead, it is mostly covering salaries and left without sufficient funds to cover programmes, monitoring and implementation. To date, for example, the strategic mandate of addressing, managing and mitigating the effects of climate change remains unfunded – even though climate change will certainly have an effect on the province as a whole. Funding still has to be sourced for the development of the Provincial Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the Provincial Carbon Reduction Strategy, the Provincial Integrated Coastal Management Plan and the Provincial Biodiversity Plan. The department also had to cut its job creation targets due to a R1.5 million budget cut.

These facts means that a tough decision must be taken about the department’s future.

At the DA, we have a great appreciation for the work that the department does. It has managed to meet more of its targets than departments with larger allocations and more staff members do. Administration by the department is relatively good, as it has managed to receive a financially unqualified audit since 2009/10. It really has done more with less. But it is simply not feasible to continue with the department as it is. Important mandates are left untouched due to a lack of resources. Let us rather phase its work into different departments to ensure that environmental matters gets the attention it deserves.

The department’s current mandates overlaps with the departments of Economic Development and Tourism as well as Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform. The current Land Care project of the Department of Agriculture can be expanded to cover Nature Conservation. Its current compliance and monitoring programme can likewise be extended to allow for the compliance and monitoring tasks that this department should be undertaking. And lastly, the green economy component can find its home in the department of Economic Development.

If we phase the programmes of this department into others, we will be able to improve on the implementation of key deliverables.

One of the key deliverables which must be improved is compliance to environmental legislation by municipalities. As the DA, we appreciate the respect the department has for the principles of intergovernmental relations. But clearly, the sweetheart approach to municipalities is not effective. It is alarming to be told by the department that they would have liked to fine municipalities for non-compliance.

A significant challenge in this regard is the management of landfill sites by municipalities. Many sites do not meet the legal requirements. For example, sites must be at least 500 metres away from the nearest residential property. However, due to poor spatial planning, settlements develop around the sites. The DA recommends that this responsibility of the department should be phased in under the Department of Co-operative Governance, Human Settlements and Traditional Affairs. The provincial government must work closely with municipalities in developing Integrated Development Plans that meet environmental requirements. When IDPs are not implemented, the municipalities must face the consequences.

On that note, Honourable Speaker, the DA congratulates the Kgatelopele, Ga-Segonyana, Sol Plaatje and Khara Hais municipalities. These four municipalities scored above 80% in a landfill site audit conducted by AfriForum.

The shale gas issue is largely being driven by the national government. We share the concern of the provincial government that water pollution poses a serious risk in the use of shale gas. We are an arid province with an agricultural sector requiring a steady supply of clean water. Nationally, the energy sector does not have the best reputation when it comes to mitigating the pollution risks associated with energy generation. A report recently commissioned by Eskom, for instance, shows that air pollution from all coal-powered stations in the province could kill up to 600 people a year.

The DA wants to see that the department steps up to its oversight responsibilities and monitors all fracking activities closely. There must be a balance between the responsible use of natural resources on the one hand and nature conservation on the other. We suggest that the province draws up a charter to govern fracking activities, similar to the Mining Charter which was signed earlier this year. The Charter on fracking should contain all the relevant best practices to ensure that the processes unfold as safely and as economically as possible. Some of the best practices we want to see includes:

  • Activities done in accordance with the spatial planning of municipalities;
  • Shafts set at an agreed distance from agricultural and commercial buildings and worksites;
  • Water exiting drill shafts controlled and cleaned so as not to pollute any water resources;
  • Companies paying for any damage caused to any public infrastructure during prospecting or extraction operations;
  • Public disclosure by companies of all contraventions of regulations and legislation;
  • Appropriate legislation and monitoring;
  • Tough penalties for any contravention.

The bottom line is that we must do right by the environment as well as by the people. According to government estimates, at least 3 000 jobs were created through the lifting of the moratorium of fracking. Fracking can play a very real role in the alleviation of poverty in a poor region. We must seize the opportunities that can better the lives of our people and that can provide a permanent path out of poverty.

In closing, I wish to remind the House that South Africa is blessed with some of the richest natural resources and biodiversity levels in the world. It is our duty to ensure that these resources are conserved for future generations.