News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Sunday February 17th 2019

Blue Lagoon

There may be a few cases in which the natural environment has not suffered at the expense of economic development, but I can’t think of any. And the current government’s neo-liberal focus on growing the economy in order to counteract the ills of poverty through a trickle-down effect – a model the Polokwane conference highlighted as severely problematical – has, I would argue, been to the detriment of vital social sectors such as health, education and the environment. The sorry state of the health and education departments speaks for itself, but it is the environment that, for the purposes of this article, is of concern. One example is the already compromised ecological system in one of South Africa’s natural jewels, the Langebaan Lagoon on the West Coast, which is being further threatened by economic development imperatives.

The problems facing the lagoon emerge from, among others, a globalised economy which demands increasing amounts of iron ore to fuel development predominantly in China and India, the mining companies responsible to their shareholders to supply this demand, and a parastatal which needs to meet infrastructure demands and turn its own profit to justify its existence.

In the midst of these forces, upon which the current global and national economic paradigm places great stress, is a lagoon on the Ramsar list as a wetland of international importance and thus recognised as being of significant value not only for South Africa but, as the Ramsar secretariat states: “For humanity as a whole.”

But it’s value, already compromised by the existence of the port, appears to play second fiddle to the proposed expansion of the Transnet iron ore handling facility from which iron ore predominantly mined in the Northern Cape by Kumba Iron Ore Ltd at Sishen and Assmang at Beeshoek, is exported. Kumba is expanding its operations to be able to export 42 million tons per annum (mtpa), while Transnet has almost completed the first phase of its expansion to handle 45mtpa and is embarking on a second phase expansion to be able to handle 93mtpa.

In addition, a desalination plant which uses the reverse osmosis process to create fresh water to dampen iron ore dust at the terminal is being planned to take pressure off municipal supplies. At full capacity the plant would produce 3.6 million liters of water a day. However, the desalination process would also produce 4.4 million liters of brine a day which would likely be pumped into the bay. While studies have concluded that the discharge of the brine – which is 1.5 times saltier than sea water – would have a low impact, environmentalists warn that the cumulative effects of the iron ore terminal expansion, the desalination plant and development around the bay could have potentially disastrous consequences for the lagoon ecosystem.

This is because although the lagoon is surrounded by the West Coast National Park, it opens into Saldanha Bay, which itself has a relatively narrow opening onto the open ocean. This creates a telescope effect in which what happens in the bay is magnified in the lagoon. The Ramsar Secretariat has already informed the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEAT) Directorate of Biodiversity Conservation that the lagoon’s ecosystem has been compromised by the construction of the iron ore handling facility in 1977, and suggested the site be placed on the Montreaux record – a record of Ramsar sites where the changes to the ecology of the site have occurred, or are likely to occur. Two of the 19 South African sites are already listed.

The DEAT appear to be doing little more than passing the buck to South African National Parks, having requested a report from them which they will forward to the Ramsar Secretariat. And if the DEAT is not willing to actively engage with the issue, other government departments set to benefit from the expansion of iron ore exports are unlikely to be bothered.

The Department of Minerals and Energy have said, through their regional manager of mineral regulations Pieter Swart that the DME “should” be concerned about the possible effects on the lagoon ecosystem, but no doubt their annual report will list the benefits of mining and export expansion above any costs to the environment.

Transnet’s mandate is, according to the scoping report, “to reduce the cost of doing business in South Africa, whilst remaining profitable by reducing costs, improving efficiencies and investing in infrastructure, as well as upgrading aging rolling stock”. In the current climate, the parastatal would ignore the increased global demand for iron ore at its peril.

But on a positive note, those living in Langebaan or who have an interest in the maintenance of the lagoon ecosystem have been extremely active in holding the authorities to account and ensuring all due processes are followed. The reliance on civil and NGO groups to protect the environment can also be observed on the Wild Coast where there is an immediate threat by Australian mining company Mineral Resource Commodities, through their South African subsidiary Transworld Energy Minerals and BEE partner Xolobeni Community Empowerment Company, to mine the dunes in the Xolobeni area for Titanium.

Here the Human Rights Commission has been called upon and produced a rather damning report regarding the shenanigans of the few who would benefit monetarily from the environmental devastation caused by the proposed open pit mining. (See for more on this interesting development)

But the fact that government has to be held to account over its own policies does not bode well. There is the real concern that where civil society is not organised, the environmental checks and balances contained in our legislation can get signed off with little more than a nod to the bureaucratic process.

Unless developers and the necessary government and local government departments put environmental and socio-economic concerns at the forefront of their approach as factors which mitigate against the search for profit, such concerns are always going to play catch up. If looked at objectively, even those who are entirely motivated by economic profit should realise this approach is unsustainable.

To use a lesser known Einstein quote, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it, and the problem of trying to protect our environmental resources is created by a paradigm which places a prerogative on economic expansion. Against the arguments of jobs created and economic growth attained, the economic argument for the maintenance of ecosystems such as Langebaan Lagoon or the Wild Coast hold little weight simply because their economic value is limited. They have certain utility value in terms of income generated from tourism and recreation, yes, but these do not measure up to the billions or Rands per year that the mining operations can boast of.

More important than their economic value is their intrinsic value. But this cannot be determined, partly because this value extends beyond our lifetimes into a future we cannot see. Of course one can argue that a lagoon’s ecosystem has little or no value to someone sitting without a job in the Northern Cape.

But it is easy for political leadership to claim jobs created and GDP increased, and populist leaders are adept at this. It is much more difficult to look at the total picture and lead a country to take sustainable steps to improve itself over the long term through best practice principles such as identifying sustainable growth opportunities and equipping people to take advantage of them while safeguarding the environment which sustains us. The paradigm shift to this style of ‘change agent leadership’ is at a premium in a world which requires radical change to prevent its own destruction from the headlong pursuit of short term economic goals.

If the ANC can get over its internal squabbles, it has the kind of majority support that would enable it to embrace ‘change-agent leadership’ – especially if its president’s conviction that they will rule until Jesus returns is true – rather than engaging in an increasingly populist approach. Then perhaps we can get over the belief that humans and their immediate needs are at the centre of the universe and come to the Galilleoic political realisation that we are merely part of an environment without which we cannot survive.

* Although not credited in the text, development economist Johan Ackron from the University of Stellenbosch School of Public Management and Planning must be acknowledged for acting as a sounding board.

* Reporting by Steve Kretzmann. Published in Mind Shift magazine, June 2008.

Tags: environment development ramsar langebaan

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