Gareth Morgan of the DA.  Picture: Ian Landsberg.
Gareth Morgan of the DA. Picture: Ian Landsberg.

SA green rating gets red flag

By Lee Rondganger Time of article published Feb 14, 2012

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A new study has painted a grim picture of South Africa’s environmental decline – that its rate over the past 20 years is almost the fastest out of all countries.

This was despite the country having some of the most progressive environmental legislation in the world.

According to the findings of researchers at Yale University and Columbia University in the US, South Africa has one of the fastest rates of environmental decline in the world and has been ranked 128 out of 132 countries in terms of its environmental performance index (EPI).

It was also the worst of all the African countries.

The annual study tracks how countries manage the environment by using the state of environmental public health, as well as ecosystem vitality. It uses 22 indicators to measure human health, water quality, biodiversity and the management and conservation of ecosystems.

“The 22 indicators that were used in the assessment highlight glaring concerns, and ones which require urgent intervention,” said Gareth Barnes, director of conservation at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa).

“What is also problematic is that South Africa is recognised as having some of the most progressive environmental legislation on the planet and yet, as this study shows, the implementation of this legislation seems to be woefully inadequate. We can no longer ignore the fact that a degrading environment has direct impacts on human health and wellbeing,” he said.

Barnes said the study should be taken seriously by the government which needs to embark on new ways of thinking to address the complex ecological systems.

“We cannot expect to attain a better score when the majority of the country’s water systems are compromised; we continue to have a fossil fuel-driven energy regime; our natural ecosystems are being transformed at an ever-accelerating speed and there is a disconnect between social upliftment programmes and environmental management.

“The trend also flies in the face of international accords that South Africa is signatory to: in 2010, South Africa signed the Convention on Biodiversity which committed us to halving the current rate of biodiversity loss. If, as a country, we are to meet this target, significant effort and resources will be required,” he said.

South Africa was the worst-performing of the 26 African countries assessed. The study showed that Gabon (40) was the best-performing country followed by Zambia (57), Egypt (60) and Tanzania (93).

The study shows that when it came to environmental health, South Africa was on the upward trend but when it came to the ecosystem vitality, the country was on the bottom tier.

“The results of this study do not surprise me at all,” said Desmond D’Sa, a South Durban environmental activist.

“We are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in Africa, we are the biggest polluters on the continent and overall we are number 11 in the world when it comes to pollution.

“Despite all the submissions and concerns raised by civil society, the government has ignored most of it. Through the effort of civil society we have the Air Quality Act and the Environmental Act. Despite having all these progressive laws we still feel that government has ignored a lot of our concerns. They made the Vaal Triangle a priority area but big polluting companies continue to expand. In south Durban the very same thing has happened. Government has not acted on those companies.

“They have the legislation in place, there is just no political will act,” he said.

Gareth Morgan, the DA spokesman on environmental affairs, said they had urged government to overcome its co-ordination failures to ensure compliance with environmental legislation.

“We have also called for a prohibition on mining in environmentally sensitive areas... If we continue on the current environmental trajectory, as is evident in the international rankings recently released, we will create irreversible environmental degradation, the most damaging of which is the destruction of our scarce freshwater supply,” he said.

Barnes said there was still an opportunity to turn things around, such as establishing a partnership between government and civil society to address biodiversity, waste, water and sanitation.

“This change is not unrealistic. If other countries such as Azerbaijan, Albania and even Egypt have been able to significantly improve their ranking, why can’t South Africa?”

Albi Modise, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs, said they were aware of the report but could not “confirm or deny its credibility”.

“South Africa has its system of assessing the changes in the environment through the state of environment reporting process that gets released every five years, with the last report having been released in 2007 and the next report due at the end of the 2012 financial year.

“The Department of Environmental Affairs commits to issuing a full media release on the state of South Africa’s environment once the report gets finalised, and for us as government that is the official document used for environmental decision-making,” he added.

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