Deputy Minister Barbara Thompson's statement on mainstreaming biodiversity in the Infrastructure Sector

14 November 2018


High level segment: Infrastructure Roundtable

South Africa has made impressive progress in integrating biodiversity issues and concerns into development projects, in the process achieving positive outcomes for both development and biodiversity. The high-level political cognisance of threats to biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the linkage of biodiversity conservation to socio-economic delivery, were key factors in mainstreaming biodiversity.

The change in government in 1994, provided a new dawn, through Section 24 of the country’s Constitution  which states that “everyone has 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 present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures, that prevents pollution and ecological degradation; promotes conservation; and secures ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development”.

The interface between biodiversity and large infrastructure is at the core of the South African National Development Plan which aims to foster growth and development that will reduce poverty and inequality. The NDP recognises that such development must be sustainable and should improve the socio-economic status of the country without jeopardising the many benefits that South Africans receive from functioning ecosystems and biodiversity. For this reason, it is important that development planning and decision-making should be strategic, co-operative and evidence based.

In 2012, the South African government adopted a National Infrastructure Plan which outlines eighteen Strategic Integrated Projects to support economic development and address service delivery in the poorest sub-regions of our country. DEA  has produced several of the Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) associated with these large infrastructure projects to ensure that sustainability is considered. Spatial biodiversity information was used successfully to inform key strategic processes at a national level that link directly to the investment priorities of the country such as the expansion of the electricity grid infrastructure.

In  order  to  manage  the  impact  of  development  on biodiversity,  the  intergraded environmental management approach, notably the Environmental  Impact  Assessment (EIA)  process  has been in place for more than 15 years. One  of  the  first  steps  in  this  process  entails  the  application   of   a   mitigation   sequence where   the  developer  has  to  look,  consecutively,  at  avoiding  or  preventing  the  loss,  then  at  minimising  or  mitigating  what    cannot    be    avoided,    rehabilitating    where  possible, and as a last resort, offsetting the residual impact.    Although most impacts on biodiversity can be mitigated, we remain vigilant and concerned with any form of transformation of certain ecosystems and vegetation types, loss of ecosystems and extinction of species.  Our country has prioritised the protection of wetlands and water catchment areas, due to their role in biodiversity protection, socio-economic development, sustainability of water supply to households and downstream factories, food security through irrigation schemes, and flood attenuation.

South Africa has established a Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Centre (PICC) in the office of the President. This office coordinates infrastructure planning for the countries through what is called Strategic Infrastructure Programs (SIPs). South Africa is developing a strategic guideline for the Ecological Infrastructure as one of the SIPs. This is in recognition of the fact that sound management catchments, ensuring they have good vegetation cover, increases the lifespan of dams because they do not fill up with soil. In contrast, poorly managed catchments erode quickly, filling up dams downstream and significantly reducing water quality which damages water distribution infrastructure and reduces water supply. Therefore, return on financial investment into hard infrastructure like dams can be improved through sound management of biodiversity and the environment in general.

Therefore, mainstreaming biodiversity needs to be firmly entrenched in the Integrated Environmental Management approaches, particularly in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes. The elevation of biodiversity mainstreaming in the infrastructure sector is welcome and relevant to our country, especially at this stage of our developmental path. Our conviction is that investments in built infrastructure for sustainable development has long term benefits to the economy, environment and humanity.  Chairperson, we need to advance Ecosystem-Based Adaptation approaches in infrastructure management, and we welcome the initiatives by the BCBD to provide tools and best practices in this regard. An integrated,   sustainable and inclusive urban infrastructure development that is environmentally-friendly is a reality that we all need to strive for.

This should cut across all infrastructure areas of transport, buildings, rail, water, energy and settlements