Environmental impact assessment, integrated development planning and the pursuit of sustainable development in South Africa : a critical reflection on the consideration of alternatives

Gerber, Gerhard (2009-03)

Thesis (MPhil (Sustainable Development Planning and Management))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


Despite our best planning and Environmental Impact Assessment (“EIA”) efforts we seem to be failing in our pursuit of Sustainable Development. In South Africa we find ourselves confronted with the harsh reality that after 14 years of democracy, more than a decade of compulsory EIA, and 12 years of legislated Integrated Development Planning (“IDP”), poverty remains widespread and persists alongside affluence, while inequalities are also growing. In addition South Africa’s life-supporting ecosystems continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Critically reflecting on what is going wrong, it is clear that there is an emergent consensus in the discourse that points towards the inadequate consideration of alternatives. A literature review of the historical development and social construction of the concept of “sustainable development”; a theoretical analysis of sustainable development, planning and EIA; as well as an analysis of the legislative and policy framework for EIA and IDP in South Africa, shows that the consideration of alternatives is the “heart” and “soul” of EIA and IDP, and therefore of the pursuit of sustainable development in South Africa. A content analysis of a sample of EIAs and IDPs undertaken and produced in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, however, indicates that alternatives are not being adequately considered during the current practice of EIA and IDP in South Africa – resulting in only slightly less unsustainable development and a perpetuation of the unsustainable and unjust “business-as-usual” development types and patterns of the past. EIA and IDP can never be, and were never supposed to be completely separate processes. EIAs must be considered within the context to be provided by the sustainable development vision, goals and objectives to be formulated in, and the desired spatial form and pattern of land use to be reflected in an area’s IDP and Spatial Development Frameworks (“SDF”). Properly informed Strategic Environmental Assessment based IDPs and SDFs, refined by Environmental Management Frameworks, should therefore provide the strategic context and decision-making framework for the consideration of need, desirability and alternatives; with the actual and potential socio-economic and ecological impacts of a specific proposal to be considered during the project-level EIA. Project-level EIAs in turn providing “feedback” to the planning processes to ensure reflexivity and continued improvement. The improved integration and convergence of IDP and EIA decision-making methodologies and practice are therefore paramount to the adequate consideration of alternatives and the pursuit of sustainable development in South Africa. While the challenges to be addressed by EIA and IDP in South Africa are complex and ‘wicked’, and the pursuit of sustainable development solutions is therefore also a complex and ongoing process, the need for fundamental alternatives that will lead to drastic and urgent change for the better are, however, just as real. The urgency and importance of the sustainable development challenge for South Africa calls for bold decisions and the search for sustainable alternatives that will deliver urgent and fundamental change for all South Africans. The practice of EIA and IDP should be driven by these realities and reflect the need for urgent and fundamental change.

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