De Hoop dam gets thumbs up

The construction of the controversial R5-billion De Hoop Dam in Mpumalanga will go ahead—but with restrictions. Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk approved the project last week, although he hinted that his final record of decision, to be released on October 13, would embody some conditions.

Van Schalkwyk said the need for the dam had “clearly been demonstrated, and there is no viable alternative to a supply-side solution for the envisaged demands on the system”.

Part of the Olifants River Water Resources Development Project, the dam is a presidential priority project that will span the Steelpoort River near the town of Steelpoort.

It seeks to facilitate platinum mining in an area where employment is scarce, and to augment domestic supplies.

The controversy centres on objections that it will affect the vital Olifants River downstream in the Kruger Park and Mozambique.
It hit the headlines last year when David Mabunda, South African National Parks CEO, raised objections during the appeals process, hinting at a struggle in the government between development and conservation.

The department of water affairs retorted that the dam would be designed and operated so that the flow in the dry season would improve in the park. Conservationists also complained that the dam would destroy 20 plant species endemic to the Sekhukhune area.

Van Schalkwyk had to consider five appeals before giving the final green light. In his decision, he conceded that the original record of decision by his department approving the project had definite inadequacies.

This week, SANParks told the Mail & Guardian that it was satisfied with the minister’s decision and that he had taken into consideration all competing imperatives.

“We have always said our role is not to stop development but to make development sustainable,” said Wanda Mkutshulwa, SANParks communications head. “We understand communities need water, that we need business in the area, but for sustainability’s sake we need to protect the ecological integrity of the river system. These needs can and must live in harmonious coexistence.”

Van Schalkwyk has already announced a strategic environmental assessment for the region. He is expected to implement a recommendation, made by the appellants, that a water management plan be implemented in the catchment area, underwritten by the department of water affairs, to ensure that the Kruger Park and others have enough water

He is also likely to rule that the threatened plant species in Sekhukhune should be moved to another area approved by botanists, and that Mozambique should be approached for permission to build the dam. He is expected to secure a written undertaking from the department of water affairs that sufficient potable water would be available for disadvantaged communities.

Water affairs director general Jabu Sindane described the approval process as a model in government. “Instead of finger-pointing and harassing concerned citizens, we worked with the department of environmental affairs and NGOs to find an acceptable solution,” Sindane said. He said a balance had to be struck between conservation and development, and that the dam would do this: “It can’t be development at all costs, just as it can’t be conservation at all costs”.

Sindane has had several discussions with David Mabunda, which Van Schalkwyk had considered in his final decision.

Government will provide about R1,3-billion of the R4,9-billion required for the project, with mines using the dam water carrying a large part of the balance.

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