Environmental affairs minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk issued a final go-ahead to the construction of the De Hoop dam and its associated 300km of pipeline on October 16, 2006. The minister has confirmed his position that the dam will “have definite and substantial detrimental impacts on the environment”, which is a direct contradiction of the department’s initial record of decision which stated that “this activity will not lead to a substantial detrimental impact on the environment”, but not everyone feels that this change of heart has been fully recognised in the new record of decision.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s chief executive, Dr Nick King, feels that the department of environmental affairs has not been transparent, and that despite the fact that it has taken the better part of a year for the minister to reach this decision, there have not been substantive changes to the record of decision. He indicated that he had been discussing the issue with lawyers, and might seek a legal review of the process.
Another appellant, Philip Owen of the South African Water Caucus, says that he is disappointed that the record of decision emphasises the need for potable water for people, as the bulk of the water is actually earmarked for mining, and that if it were just a matter of supplying potable water then there would be better small-scale alternatives that would have a lesser impact than the dam.
He added that he felt that the strategic environmental assessment that the minister called for also failed to address the cumulative impacts of mining in the area, focussing as it did more on water-related issues. Van Schalkwyk called for a strategic environmental assessment in a document released at the end of September. It is not a condition of the final record of decision relating to the dam.
Several explicitly detailed comments and suggestions made by the external experts who advised the minister were contained in the document that preceded the final ROD. The practical implementation of these comments and suggestions are not as clearly indicated in the ROD as they were in the earlier document, although there has been some obvious tightening of some of the conditions.
This includes the fact that the environmental monitoring committee that watches over the dam’s construction should include a terrestrial and/or and aquatic ecologist, who should be remunerated to carry out this task. It also says that the department of water affairs “must establish and maintain a conservation area of equal size and similar nature to the area of the Sekhukhune Land Centre of Endemism, to be flooded or otherwise transformed as result of the building of the dam, as mitigation for the loss of this land.”
Previously, water affairs only had to “initiate an investigation into the conservation” of this biodiversity-rich area, which is home to at least 20 species of plant that are found nowhere else in the world. The De Hoop dam will flood some of the most pristine areas of the centre of plant endemism, which has been described as “one of the areas in the country where the most new species are being discovered” and “probably the single area in the country where botanical conservation is the most important for preventing loss of unknown genetic resources”.
According to the department of water affairs and forestry, no major construction on the project, which includes moving the section of provincial road that the dam will flood, is likely to begin before the second quarter of next year. Water affairs has to prepare a number of environmental management plans and appoint various committees, including the environmental monitoring committee.
Other pre-construction activities include building construction housing, land valuation and acquisition, financial commitment (as the dam is apparently being funded largely through mining interests), archaeological work, grave exhumation, plant rescue and others. The dam is expected to first start filling up with water in March 2010, and will probably take a number of years to fill.