It has taken nine months, but the minister of environmental affairs and tourism has finally reached the conclusion that the building of the 80 metre high De Hoop dam in the Olifants River catchment can go ahead, despite what he calls "definite and substantial detrimental impacts on the environment".
Plans to build the R4 billion dam and its associated 300km of pipelines ground to a standstill last December when Sanparks, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the South African Water Caucus, the National Parks Support Group Trust and concerned conservationist Errol Pietersen all lodged appeals against the department of environmental affairs and tourism's decision to let the department of water affairs build the dam.
However, in his announcement that he will let the project go ahead, Marthinus van Schalkwyk said that he shared the concerns raised by some of those appealing against the dam and decided to partially uphold those appeals that related to the cumulative impacts that development has had on the water situation in the Olifants River catchment, especially as it affected the Kruger National Park (KNP). He has promised to issue an amended set of conditions under which the dam can be built by October 13, 2006.
Van Schalkwyk clearly indicated that he felt that it was necessary to conduct a strategic environmental assessment "with a degree of urgency" to look at the lowveld/Kruger Park ecosystem in order to address the "cumulative impacts of development on the area, which has increasing threats to its ecosystem integrity and sustainable economic development."
He added that the Mozambican government should be party to the study, and that the department of water affairs should furnish proof, in writing, that the Mozambican government has agreed that the De Hoop dam be built.
Fundamental to the appeal made by Sanparks against the De Hoop Dam project is the fact that the Olifants River dried up for 78 days in Kruger last year, and that the required amount of water intended for the environment almost never reaches the park in the dry season.
In addressing this issue, the minister said that the management of the river system between the proposed new dam and the Kruger National Park should be looked at, and a management plan drawn up to ensure that environmental water requirements are met and enforced by the department of water affairs.
Van Schalkwyk also looked at other issues raised in the appeals against the dam, including the supply of water from the dam to disadvantaged communities and the issue of finding new land to conserve that will replace the ecosystem that the dam will inundate.
With the dam occurring in a hotspot of plant diversity where many unique plants occur, where the environmental impact consultants say that "botanical conservation is the most important for preventing loss of unknown genetic resources" and many rare species of fish and other animals occur, the minister says that the "no development" option should be "critically reassessed" is a suitable nature reserve cannot be established in mitigation of the dam.
Sanparks' spokesperson Wanda Mkutshulwa has said that they were "thankful to the minister for his decision" and were happy that he had taken into consideration the "competing imperatives" of the need to provide communities with water, build the economy in the area and "for sustainability's sake... to protect the ecological integrity of the river system."