Stakeholders Concerned about Ethanol Project in Hoedspruit

How much value does an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of a processing plant have if it does not take into consideration the impact of the produce required to feed the plant? Especially if the required produce - one of the thirstiest crops in the world - will be produced within a 65 kilometre radius and will have a marked impact on resources in that area.

This is one of several concerns raised at a feedback session about a proposed ethanol-from-sugarcane plant in the Hoedspruit area. Stakeholders, many of whom are registered interested and affected parties (IAP) in the EIA for the project, were unhappy with the likely impact on water resources and air quality, by-products (such as vinasse from sugarcane) and the public participation process to date. The meeting, the first of two scheduled by the consultant Africa Geo-Environmental Services (Ages) (Pty) Ltd, for May 15, 2008, took place in the resource centre of Southern Cross Schools during a sustainable living festival.

According to the background information document (BID) the proposed ethanol plant will be geared to produce 100 million litres of motor grade ethanol a year. This will be produced from a sugarcane crop of 1,4 million tonnes of cane. The mill will be designed to crush for 336 days a year at a rate of 200 tonnes an hour. Ages representative, Michael Grobler, acknowledged that the same concern about excluding the feedstock (sugarcane fields) from the EIA was also raised at the previous stakeholder meeting and has been noted as such.

He said this will be discussed with the department of water affairs and forestry (Dwaf) in a scheduled meeting. Michael says a specialist study about the impact of the water will also be presented to Dwaf and the Limpopo department of economic development, environmental affairs and tourism (Ledet). This study only covers the impact of the plant on the area's water resources as dictated by the scope of the present EIA for their client, the Central Energy Fund (Pty) Ltd / Industrial Development Corporation Joint Venture (CEF/IDC Joint Venture).

He stated, however, that they have noted the accumulative effect of the project on resources such as water and this will be submitted to Ledet and Dwaf for their consideration. He said they see the water balance as one of the crucial issues of the project and will present it as such.

Dr Thomas Gyedu-Ababio, water specialist for the Kruger National Park (KNP), said he would rather have seen an EIA being done for the feedstock first and then, if necessary, for the plant. What is happening at present, "is like putting the cart before the horse." Dr Sharon Pollard of Award, a water research programme in the Bushbuckridge area, raised the need for water allocations and licensing according to the new water act and the recently introduced catchment management strategy guidelines.

Dr Pieter Scholtz, a local farmer and one of the proponents of the project, said existing crops will be converted to sugarcane and water allocations have already been done in the Blyde River Irrigation District (Brid). At present some 12 000 hectares - 3 000 ha citrus, 2 500 ha mango and other crops - are under irrigation in the Brid. Water allocation in the Ohrigstad and Acornhoek areas exists to some extent.

Marina Caird of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (Wessa) said many people in rural areas do not have water allocations yet, and this will impact on the existing resources when they are taken up. In response to a question about current allocations in the Brid, Pieter said about 60 percent are in the hands of BEE ventures or BEE partnerships and the remaining allocations with commercial farmers. Errol Pietersen, a neighbour of the proposed plant and a conservationist, believes Ages should deal with a national authority in this EIA as South Africa has an international obligation to water users of the Olifants River in Mozambique.

He asks that a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) be done as "we need a holistic and global view of the issue," and if Ages does not take this into account it will ignore its own objectives. Thomas supported the proposal for an SEA, which will include a feasibility study of the proposed feedstock. Michael said a feasibility study was done in 2001 and Ages has been tasked to verify the "relevance and truth of the study."

Thomas remarked that recent projections show there will be a shortage of water in 2015 and queried the relevance of the 2001 study. Jacques Brits, manager of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, asked if the viability study of the plant considered production demand and supply in five years and beyond. Suhel al-Janabi of the German Development Bank (GTZ) who attended the meeting as part of the sustainable living festival, posed the need to consider the impact of climate change - especially on the catchment areas and subsequent impact on the project.

Towards the end of the meeting, a community representative said it seems most concerns are related to eco-tourism and he asked that the project must be given a chance if "it appears to be viable." Pieter said the project will not go ahead if it is not economically viable for a potential R700 to R900 million investment.

The government has adjusted its biofuel target from 10 to between three and four percent of the South African biofuel blend. It hopes to produce 50 percent of South Africa's total fuel supply locally. The methodology on determining the price of biofuel is still on the table. According to Pieter it will probably be linked to thresholds of the oil price.

By Lynette Strauss

Kruger National Park - South African Safari