Some Key Environmental Issues in South Africa

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Some Key Environmental Issues in South Africa

This essay identifies some key environmental issues in South Africa. It is unlikely to be comprehensive because the importance of various issues depends on the individual’s perspective e.g. Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign is likely to consider AIDS more important than biodiversity loss. In my opinion, many of the environmental issues in this essay are at least partially the result of bad governance and lack of political will.

Many of these issues are interrelated with each other e.g. mining causing water pollution. I have grouped the selected environmental issues into biophysical and socioeconomic categories though many of the issues overlap.
Biophysical Issues

In many cases, the reason for biophysical environmental issues is that the resources are public goods and thus undervalued in the economy (Goodstein 2002).[Goodstein]


South Africa is water stressed (i.e. there are 1 000—1 699 m3 of water per person per year) and is predicted to be short of water by 2050 (Clarke and King 2004).[] In the report, South Africa: Initial National Communication under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it is predicted that South Africa will use most of its freshwater resources in the next few decades without considering the impacts of climate change (Government of South Africa 2000).[] This means that water resources need to be carefully managed. The excessive use (at rates greater than the recharge rate) of groundwater could reduce the availability of surface water (CNdV africa 2005).[]

Water use by agriculture, households and industry results in pollution which increases the costs of ensuring clean and disease-free water (Clarke and King 2004).[] Pollution reaches the oceans through pipes (e.g. sewage outfalls and storm water outlets) and waterways and contributes to biodiversity loss and other coastal problems (CNdV africa 2005).[]
Air pollution

South Africa generates 50% of the air pollution on the African continent. Vehicular transport and electricity generation are two major contributors to air pollution in South Africa (CNdV 2005).[]


My experience of municipal workers in Penhill, Eersterivier is that if it is natural, it must be destroyed. During my secondary education, I prevented the brush cutting of a small patch of indigenous vegetation on the public open space next to my home. The municipal worker pointed to a Protea scolymocephala (planted) and more-or-less said “What about that?” A more recent example is arriving home from Stellenbosch to find the entire open space diagonally across from my home had been mowed on the excuse that it was a fire hazard. A fire break would have been quite adequate especially since roads provide fire breaks on three sides and on the side without a road there is a drainage ditch a few metres from the household boundaries. The public open space has not yet fully recovered from that mowing.

Fisheries depletion

Suffering from the loss and degradation of coastal spawning areas.

Non-renewable resources

Mining is not sustainable as the resources are depleted by the process Goodstein (2002)[] contends that this is not the case if we somehow use created capital to offset reductions in natural capital. The evidence of Eskom’s budget for renewable electricity generation (Gosling)[] suggests the that such an offset is unlikely in South Africa.

Mining also prevents agriculture or urban development and in turn, urban development may prevent mining (CNdV africa 2005).[CNdV]
Global Warming

The potential impacts of global warming are likely to exacerbate existing issues (e.g. water and biodiversity) and need to be considered in planning for the future (Erasmus et al. 2002, Bomhard et al. 2005, CNdV africa 2005).[CNdV] The Stern Report indicates that, without action, global warming will eventually harm the economy (Stern 2006).[]

Socioeconomic Issues

Waste management

The main factors involved in generating increasing amounts of waste are more production of goods, economic growth and increasing population (CNdV africa 2005).[CNdV]

Inadequate waste management contributes to pollution (Clarke and King 2004, CNdV africa 2005).[] Sewage systems in various provinces are failing resulting in water pollution and potentially causing health problems. The money allocated for repairs is inadequate (CNdV africa 2005).[CNdV]
Handling wastes from informal settlements is a particular problem owing to the lack of infrastructure and possibly the location of the settlement (e.g. avoiding river pollution with an informal settlement on its banks is difficult). Weekly (at least) rubbish collection is available to 55% of South Africans (CNdV africa 2005).[CNdV]
Solid waste may be incinerated or sent to landfill sites. Landfills are classified according to the type of waste (general or hazardous), their size and the chance that significant amounts of leaching will occur. The location of new landfill sites is difficult (CNdV africa 2005).[CNdV]

There are two aspects to the issue of transport: firstly, the form of it takes and secondly, the placement and state of the infrastructure required for transport (e.g. roads and railways).

The number of private vehicles in South Africa is growing. This is causing congestion problems and contributing a large portion of the country’s carbon emissions (CNdV 2005).[] Widening the roads will not improve the congestion in the medium or long term (Brown 2001, CNdV 2005).[] The country’s public transport is inefficient, subsidised and unsafe. The capacity of all forms of public transport during off-peak hours is too great (CNdV africa 2005)[] and during peak hours (at least for rail transport), too small (pers. obs. 2006)
The road network is deteriorating. Bypass roads with accompanying service stations lead to a decrease in the economic activity of small towns (CNdV africa 2005).[]

There are two aspects regarding the electricity supply in South Africa at present. The first is generation capacity and the second is the type of electricity generation.

Personal experience of some of the unplanned power outages of the last two years (at least) suggests that electricity supply in South Africa is inadequate. My personal experience is that the quality of Eskom’s service has declined in the last few years. Eskom plans to bring three coal-fired power stations back into service to increase its capacity (Eskom).[] It is also in the process of building more power stations: one new coal-fired station has been approved, another is awaiting approval, a pebble bed nuclear reactor is planned near Koeberg, two peak time gas turbines and a peak time pump storage station are planned (CNdV, Times).[CNdV Times]
The principle form of electricity generation used by Eskom is coal (ten working power stations) (Eskom).[Eskom] This form of electricity generation contributes to the air pollution issues in this country. Eskom also has Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, six hydroelectric power stations, two gas turbines and two pumped storage stations (Eskom).[Eskom] Koeberg generates nuclear waste to add to the country’s waste management problems and the gas turbines contribute to air pollution. The Palmiet Pumped Storage Station is situated in the Koegelberg Mountains and destroyed a relatively pristine natural environment. It should never have been allowed to be built.
It is noticeable that none of Eskom’s base load power stations are using renewable energy sources (Eskom).[Eskom] Eskom does have an experimental wind generation scheme ()[] but it has not budgeted for much expansion of its renewable electricity generation capacity (R4.5 million vs R6 million for nuclear energy) (Gosling).[Gosling]
AIDS and Population Growth

AIDS (Acquired Imunodeficiency Syndrome) occurrence was estimated at 13% in 2001 and projected to grow. AIDS affects the economically active 25—45 years-old age bracket most which results in the number of orphans and aged people requiring government assistance increasing. Population growth will be drastically reduced (Arndt and Lewis 2001).[Arndt] The U.S. Census Bureau estimates South Africa’s population at July 2007 as 43.998 billion ()[] but their projection for 2050 is only r

The unskilled have the highest incidence of AIDS (Arndt and Lewis 2000).[] The impacts of AIDS include a decline in savings, increased medical expenditure, decreased productivity and changes in the structure e.g. a movement away from sectors requiring unskilled labour. On a macroeconomic level, AIDS has a negative impact on GDP and does not reduce unemployment in the unskilled/semi-skilled sector (Arndt and Lewis 2001).[]

Poverty for the purposes of this essay refers to a combination of material need and endless lack of wealth (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[poverty] The two variations are not automatically synonymous.

Poverty measures may be absolute (e.g. those living on under $1 per day (purchasing power parity)) or relative (e.g. measuring income inequality) (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[measuring poverty] South Africa is estimated to have 34.1% of its population living less than $2 per day (purchasing power parity) and 10.7% of the population living on less than $1 per day (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[listpover] The rate of income inequality in South Africa is among the highest in the world.[WikipediaSA] In 2000, it was estimated that 50% of South Africa’s population lived below the national poverty line (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[listpover]
The poor consider the following, amongst other factors, as characteristic of poverty: uncertain employment, restricted skills, physical restrictions, no security and abuse from the officialdom (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[poverty]

Crime in South Africa is comparable to developing countries rather than developed countries. Carjacking, rape, assault and murder (especially the murder of farmers) are among the forms of crime known to be a problem in South Africa (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[Crime in SA]

A good summary of why crime is increasing in South Africa is, in my opinion, Charles Nqakula’s (the Minister of Safety and Security) notorious comment that those who grumble about crime in South Africa should stop whinging and emigrate (gist of comment found in Wikipedia Contributors 2007 [Crime in SA] but also personally remembered from news broadcasts at the time).
Visible signs of the crime in South Africa are the proliferation of gated communities and private security companies (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[Crime in SA]

Unemployment was estimated at 25.5% in 2006 (Wikipedia Contributors 2007).[Wiki Economy SA] The highest unemployment is in the unskilled/semi-skilled sector (more than 50% in 1999) while the skilled sector had more than 20% unemployment in 1999. Total available employment (formal and informal sectors) in the unskilled and semi-skilled sector had declined to 92% of the 1970 level in 1999 (Arndt and Lewis 2001).[] Arndt and Lewis (2001)[] show real income increases in 1999 relative to 1970. Highly skilled people were receiving about 90% of the 1970 level of income, skilled workers’ income was at 110% of the 1970 level and unskilled/semiskilled workers’ income had increased 250% relative to the 1970 level. They concluded that unskilled and semi-skilled workers have priced themselves out of the market (Arndt and Lewis 2001).[] Unemployment due to the wages being above the market value may be caused by government (by instituting laws pertaining to minimum wages and/or firing of employees) and/or union action (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[Unemp] In South Africa both of these factors play a role (as demonstrated by the strikes this year). (Look up minimum wage laws)

Unemployment leads to poverty and increases crime and suicide. It allows employers to pay low wages and minimal benefits. The cost of losing employment increases because the chances of finding other employment are low (Wikipedia Contributors 2007 ).[Unemp]

South Africa claims to follow and outcomes-based education system at the level of primary and secondary education but this is not visible in the schools – even those with adequate resources (Raitt 2005 and pers. comm. R.R. Raitt).[] In the poorer areas, schools may lack: infrastructure and/or the infrastructure may be in poor repare; resources and competent teachers. For such schools, overcrowding in the classroom (i.e. too large classes) is frequent and teacher absenteeism may be a problem (De Jager and Ferreira 2004, Pretorius and Machet 2004).[D & F, P&M] The fact that these problems exist indicates unequal allocation of resources by the government.

At the tertiary education level, there are problems with increasing numbers of students admitted to university that are inadequately prepared for tertiary education – indicating deficiencies in secondary education (Linkonyane and Sanders 2000).[L&S] In South Africa, English is a frequent medium for tertiary instruction. Many students are not first language English speakers and do not have sufficient skill in English to be able to understand the content they are taught. A final problem in tertiary education is that many lecturers lack teaching experience and/or knowledge of learning theories. This means that they are unable to effectively convey knowledge and skills to the students (Jacobs 2005).[Jacobs]

Tourism affects both the environment culturally and physically. The negative impacts are the result of accommodation and infrastructure development and the tourists themselves (Blangy and Mehta 2006).[] Tourism may be negatively affected by the appearance and/or location of development (CNdV africa 2005).[]

The International Ecotourism Society has defined ecotourism as travel to natural areas that is responsible and contributes to the conservation of the area and the well-being of the local communities (Blangy and Mehta 2006).[] Miller (2002) provides useful guidelines for assessing the sustainability of offered nature-based tourism packages. Blangy and Mehta (2006)[] indicate that the Phinda Private Game Reserve near St. Lucia in South Africa fulfils the requirements for classification as an ecotourism operation.

The impact of many of these issues could be drastically reduced by appropriate government action. In my opinion such action is, in many cases, unlikely for the foreseeable future. This is in my opinion, in part, due to the anthropocentric and amoral nature of economics (Goodstein 2002).[Goodstein]


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