An extract from a speech presented by Melinda Hattingh MPL at the annual Budget Vote Debate for the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Nature Conservation at the Frances Baard District Municipality chambers in Kimberley.

Since the Northern Cape government made the misguided decision of creating an independent Department of Environment and Nature Conservation, the tone of this annual budget vote debate has been much the same, year after year. This department, which receives by far the tiniest piece of the pie, remains pathetically underfunded.

I have said it before and I will say it again: provincial government should never have opted to make this a standalone department. By rather pooling resources and cutting out the financial expense of an unnecessary ministry, provincial government would have freed up significant funds that may well have gone a long way towards taking the important work of this department forward.

But unfortunately, the provincial Department of Environment and Nature Conservation is still largely viewed by this government as a “nice excuse” for the ANC to create additional positions for its loyal political cadres.

Hon. Speaker, it is troubling indeed that the mandate of this department remains hugely underrated by the ANC government. Perhaps, when the direct repercussions of this department’s failures affect the wellbeing of politicians or someone they personally know, then they will begin to realize the importance of this department.

Hon. Speaker, research is currently underway at Kimberley Hospital regarding the Northern Cape having the highest incidence of lung cancer in the country. 

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that most commonly affects the lining of the lungs and chest wall. More than 80% of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk. This is not some insignificant, random finding. Instead, it speaks directly to a seriously polluted environment. An environment that is toxic. A Northern Cape environment that demands urgent and immediate attention.

A business plan for the remediation of asbestos polluted areas was drawn up by the Department of Environment. If funded, the multi-year project is envisaged to be in operation for between ten and fifteen years, with an estimated cost of between R100 and R150 million for this department alone. Other stakeholder departments, such as Roads and Public Works, and Education, will also require their own additional funding for replacing asbestos schools and rehabilitating asbestos roads. 

The overall response by provincial government, however, is dismal and uncaring. Not only is a blind eye turned to the critical funding needs required to address asbestos pollution in this province, but there is an obvious lack of urgency, as can be seen from the fact that the provincial asbestos task team has yet to be properly constituted.

In the meantime, while this department takes a back seat, people continue to be exposed to deadly asbestos fibres. This is so wrong. This is so unfair. This is an injustice.

Hon. Speaker, asbestos is not the only environmental hazard in our province that is failing to get the attention it deserves. Kimberley was previously found to have one of the highest ozone levels in the world. 

To date, however, this department has purchased only passive air quality monitoring systems and not continuous air monitoring systems. As a result, the department is not in possession of adequate data to be able to determine the exact extent of the ozone threat presented to the people of this province.

Nonetheless, it would appear that skin cancer is on the up and up in the Northern Cape. Yet, all the while, children continue to be exposed to the sun, at its most potent time of day, during school sports and activities, without even so much as a word of warning from the Department of Environment.

I am relieved that this department has finally made budgetary provision for the purchasing of two continuous monitors, at an estimated cost of R400 000 for both. Given the affordability of the continuous monitors, I, however, fail to understand why this department, although underfunded, could not have prioritized such a crucial purchase years ago already.

It is the plea of the DA that this department no longer takes the ozone threat lightly and instead urgently collaborates with the health department to conduct further research on skin cancer in the Northern Cape.

Hon. Speaker, there is a third potential cancer hazard, on the Northern Cape’s doorstep, that I must also mention. This relates to toxic waste generated by the 22 renewable energy projects in the Northern Cape that are providing electricity to Eskom.

Let me explain.

Solar panels harbour their share of toxic chemicals, such as Cadmium. The toxic chemicals are a problem during construction and when a solar panel is disposed of. Due to their toxic nature, solar panels must, therefore, be disposed of at a hazardous landfill site. The province, however, currently does not have a hazardous landfill site and waste is transported by private service providers all the way to Gauteng for disposal.

While inspections are conducted by this department, and disposal certificates are requested from the renewable power generators as proof, there is still the risk of non-compliance and contamination of our environment. Cadmium, like asbestos, is a cancer hazard and its dust may cause lung and kidney disease.

Hon. Speaker, according to a report by the Department of Health earlier this year, new incidences of cancer have increased fourfold in the last 10 years in the Northern Cape. It is even said that cancer is threatening to overtake HIV as the leading cause of death in the Province.

Hon. Speaker, the provincial government can no longer afford to ignore the fact that parts of the environment of the Northern Cape are making our people seriously sick. In order to fully assess the situation, funding simply must be allocated to reviewing the outdated Northern Cape State of the Environment Outlook, without delay.

This department -  and this provincial government - must step up its role in supporting the constitutional rights of the people of the Northern Cape, to an environment that is not harmful to the health and well-being of our people.

Hon. Speaker, until then, the DA cannot support Budget Vote 13.

* Melinda Hattingh is the DA Alternate Spokesperson of Environment in the Northern Cape.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.