The amendments made to the National Environmental Management Act (Nema) concerning environmental impact assessment (EIA) regulations, which came into effect in December, are a positive step towards interdepartmental collaboration, says law firm ENSafrica environmental director Robyn Stein.
She highlights that the new amendments enable environmental authorisation applicants to simultaneously receive all the necessary environmental licences, such as water use and waste management licences. If the application is for a mining right, the environmental authorisation will be handled by the Department of Mineral Resources, which would acquire all the necessary licences from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on behalf of the applicant.
The one-stop licensing approach is intended to foster interdepartmental collaboration, which should significantly reduce the time needed for projects to receive environmental approval and, ultimately, to start development.
Previously, project developers were required to submit licence applications to the relevant department. In the case of a water use licence, applications needed to be submitted to the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation.
“The new legislation delegates the authority to the relevant departments, which would operate under the auspices of Nema when approving licence applications. “The new amendments allow for shared and integrated responsibility between the departments, but ultimately the responsibility primarily lies with the DEA,” says Stein.
She points out that the idea of a multidepartmental approach to handling the environmental concerns of South Africa is not new. “I worked with former Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Kader Asmal as a special legal adviser during the drafting of the National Water Act of 1998, the same year Nema came into effect. “It was identified then that integration between the various government departments, as well as their policies and laws, would provide significant opportunities to efficiently tackle the country’s environmental concerns.”
However, Stein acknowledges that interdepartmental collaboration is a complicated endeavour, as policy integration requires political will, resources and support from the general public and the private sector.
She suggests that the formation of an environmental protection agency could prove invaluable in providing the much-needed assistance to gather input from various Members of Parliament. “An environmental protection agency would harness the work undertaken by DEA legal authorisation and chief director on enforcement Frances Craigie and her team of self-governing environmental guardians, the Green Scorpions.”
Stein asserts that forming a protection agency will enable regulators to focus on processing licence applications through the services of an implementation officer with the discretionary right to grant or deny licence applications. This would, in turn, enable government departments to focus on policymaking, as well as building and apportioning resources where required.
“This idea stems from and is a credit to the work of Craigie and the Green Scorpions in managing a small agency through the DEA. “An independent agency that can integrate its activities with those of government departments would make the EIA processes and regulations more efficient,” she argues.
Stein explains that Ministers of every department are required to propose and give effect to the laws passed by Parliament. It is their responsibility to develop policies and manage the implementation thereof, as well as any appeals that might arise.
“An agency body would help limit the burden of bureaucracy for departments, whose role should be to implement the laws passed by Parliament – not enforce and regulate these laws,” she concludes.