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By Eleanor Momberg
Vaal land owners are up in arms over a proposed five-star hotel and conference centre development on the five islands in the Vaal River, near Parys.
The resort to be erected by Woodbridge Property Development falls within the Tlkowe municipality in North West province, and within the boundary of the soon-to-be proclaimed Vredefort Dome World Heritage Site.
According to the environmental impact assessment being conducted by Africa Geo-Environmental Services (Ages) on behalf of the North West department of agriculture, conservation, environment and rural development in terms of the National Environment Management Act, the development would increase tourism to the area.
The hotel would be built below the 10-year flood line, and all necessary water, sanitation and electricity services would be received from the Parys municipality.
The developers stated that the construction would be eco-friendly and beneficial to the islands, which were already in a degraded state, that the hotel would not exceed three storeys and that the traffic impact resulting from the construction of a new bridge north of the existing suspension bridge would be minimal.
But, members of the Dome Action Group have argued that it would be better to restore the islands than develop them, particularly since they were home to a number of bird species, including the rare green-backed heron, two species of otters, water mongoose, vervet monkeys, porcupines, as well as a variety of fish species.
The controversy about the hotel development comes after Unesco threatened to delist the Vredefort Dome as a World Heritage Site because an integrated management plan for the area, which was supposed to have been completed two years ago, had not yet been finalised.
The Action Group managed, through a petition, to stop a group of landowners successfully applying for the delisting of the Vredefort Dome as a World Heritage Site, saying the draft integrated management plan for the area would be too restrictive and impede business.
An eighth draft of the plan was expected to be adopted in the coming weeks, ensuring that the site of the oldest and largest meteorite crater on Earth was formally granted its World Heritage status next month.
Opposing the development, the Action Group said reliance on the Parys municipality for sewage and water would place additional pressure on an already overburdened system which had seen thousands of litre of raw sewage spilling into the Vaal River because of a lack of proper maintenance.
Upgrading of the sewage plant had started, but plans were afoot to build a new sewage works away from the river to prevent future spillages.
The group said it would challenge the developer's right to develop the islands, its right to control surface waters up to 5m from the bank as claimed during a public meeting last month, and its right to build canals, channels, bridges, dams and weirs interfering with the watercourse.
The landowners also highlighted the fact that if the development took place public use of the river - which was frequented by fishermen, canoeists, birdwatchers, walkers, picnickers and swimmers - would be curtailed.
A process had been under way since last year to have the channels between the islands declared a registered nature trail for wilderness canoeing.
Graeme Addison of the Dome Action Group said this process was being pursued with a view to stopping the development "in the interests of the public".
Addison said the developer's argument that the hotel would create jobs in the area did not hold water as construction work required low-level skilled workers, and no thought or planning had gone into skills and enterprise development or benefits to the local community beyond the "trickle down" effect of "yet another tourism development in an area which continues to suffer serious unemployment".
The Department of Environmental Affairs, which is responsible for the implementation and management of the National Environment Management Act, said it was not aware of the developments proposed and had, to date, not received any application for environmental authorisation.
"Such development will, however, require an environmental authorisation in terms of the requirements of the environmental impact assessment regulations and as it is proposed to take place within a World Heritage site and in two provinces, the national department will be the competent authority to whom an application must be submitted," said Albi Modise, Environmental Affairs spokesman.
Modise said development below the floodline of rivers was generally not desirable, although a decision on a specific matter must be made on the merits and the predictable merits of the case.
The department could only pronounce on the matter once all the relevant studies had been completed.
The Department of Water Affairs said it had been invited by Ages North West to register as an interested and affected party for the public process that formed part of the environmetal impact assessment for the hotel development, but that it had not been involved in any further discussions.
Marius Keet of the department's Gauteng regional office said if the development was to take place within the extent of the water course, which included the greater part of the one-in-100-year floodline or the edge of a riparian habitat, national water legislation clauses relating to water use, including diverting or impeding the flow of water in the water course and or changes to the characteristics or resource quality of the water course, would apply.
Regarding landowners' concerns that the development would place additional pressure on Parys's already overloaded sewage works and water supply system that had townspeople unable to drink their water, Keet said the department would not allow development to take place "unless these challenges have been addressed".
"We are engaging Parys to take action in order to upgrade their systems," said Keet.
But, he said, the development appeared to be in its early stages and the department would be getting actively involved to ensure the protection of the water resource, even if it slowed down the development to enable the developers to comply with all the necessary water regulations.