De Hoop Dam Gets Go-Ahead

By Melissa Wray In Kruger National Park

South African National Parks (Sanparks) has taken a firm stand against the proposed De Hoop dam, saying they will "vociferously appeal against the record of decision" that gives the department of water affairs and forestry (Dwaf) the right to build the R1.1 billion dam and its associated R3 billion in infrastructure in the Olifants River catchment.

Sanparks states that the development "does nothing more than threatened the future of the environment and the biological diversity in a national conservation area (namely the Kruger National Park)." Three other parties have appealed against the construction of the dam, including the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a Mozambican environmental organisation known as Geasphere, and the South African Water Caucus.

A private individual has appealed against the terms of the record of decision, seeking to strengthen the proposed mitigation of the dam's  environmental impacts. The main thrust of the Sanparks appeal deals with the fact that Dwaf has failed to live up to its legal obligation in terms of the national water act to provide sufficient water in the Olifants River to sustain the river's ecology in the Kruger National Park (KNP), preventing Sanparks from fulfilling their mandate to conserve biodiversity.

Olifants River Stops In Kruger for 78 Days

The proposed dam will stop the flow of the last major undammed tributary of the Olifants River, decreasing already pathetic flows into Kruger. Once a mighty river that flowed year round, the Olifants River has been turned into a muddy trickle in the KNP, ceasing to flow completely last year for 78 days from August to November. This resulted in massive fish deaths, loss of other aquatic life, lack of drinking water in major camps and caused park officials to consider re-implementing the culling of hippo.

Threats of Legal Action

In their appeal against the dam, Sanparks states that if the dam is allowed to go ahead and take water out of the Olifants River system without Kruger receiving its due share of water, known as the ecological reserve, Sanparks "will have no alternative but to approach an appropriate court for relief " from the department of water affairs.

Although a provision is made in the record of decision for the implementation of the reserve of the Olifants River, Sanparks describes it as "unclear, vague and embarrassing" as well as "meaningless and ineffective".

The EWT's appeal describes Dwaf's commitment to implementing the reserve as being "non-existent in the rest of the Olifants River system" and states that they can see no evidence that this is likely to change, and that the reserve is unlikely to receive first priority if the dam is built.

All four applicants who oppose the construction of the dam have asked for an extension to the appeal period to further supplement the information in their appeals, as many people needed to help draw up the appeals were already on holiday during the appeal period.

Rubber-Stamping Unsustainable Development

The EWT is outspoken in its condemnation of the timing of the appeal period as well as poor notification of the record of decision, comparing it to attempts to force through approval of the construction of the controversial N2 toll road.

They state, "If the intention is to rubber-stamp unsustainable development and bulldoze through such records of decision without providing sufficient opportunity for public input then this will be borne out by the department of environmental affairs not extending the appeal period."

Despite the fact that it is almost a month since the appeals were lodged, no one has yet informed the organisations that are appealing if their requests to extend the appeal period have been granted. The ministry of environmental affairs was unable to tell the Kruger Park Times if the extension was likely to be granted, but said that the matter would have to be discussed.

Domestic Water Supply in Question

The proposed dam lies between Stoffberg and Steelpoort on the R555, and will flood about 5km of the road if constructed. President Mbeki first proposed the dam in February 2003 in his state of the nation address when he announced the construction of "a dam on the Olifants River in the Limpopo Province to provide water for platinum  mining and agriculture".

Although Mbeki announced that the dam was primarily for economic purposes, much is made in the environmental impact reports on providing water for people's primary use. However, the EWT points out that the report also states "it is not the responsibility of the Dwaf to provide water to individual households" and asks how this domestic supply will be guaranteed. "No evidence is provided that local communities will in fact receive water, let alone be able to pay for it."

Loss of Endemic Species

As well as being detrimental to the flow of water in the Olifants River, the proposed 21-story high dam will flood what the environmental impact report calls "probably the single area in the country where botanical conservation is the most important for preventing loss of unknown genetic resources." At least 20 species of plants that are found nowhere else on earth will be flooded by the dam, along with at least 20 animal species that are already threatened with extinction.

This includes an extremely rare lizard known as the Sekhukhune flat lizard, only rediscovered in the 1980s. The dam will also cause the already endangered barred minnow to become locally extinct. It is now the responsibility of the minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, to decide on what further action will be taken on the construction of the dam and its associated 300km of bulk water pipelines.

The department of water affairs, as the proponent of the dam, will be given an opportunity to compile a response to the issues raised in the appeals. The minister must then review the relevant documentation and decide whether to stop the entire project or review the terms of the record of decision, a more usual course of action.

While waiting for the finalisation of the appeal, the department of water affairs can continue with their planning of the construction of the dam "at risk", but may not initiate any construction activities.

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