SA’s first bioregional plan gazetted

Warrick Stewart, principal environmental scientist, SRK Consulting
Warrick Stewart, principal environmental scientist, SRK Consulting (1).JPG

The gazetting of South Africa’s first bioregional plan – for the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM) in the Eastern Cape – is a milestone on the road towards the more sustainable development of SA towns and cities, according to SRK Consulting (SA) principal environmental scientist Warrick Stewart.

“This plan sets a notable benchmark, and it is certainly fitting that it has been achieved by a municipality with such rich biological diversity – where five of SA’s nine biomes converge,” said Stewart. “The area boasts the Fynbos, Albany Thicket, Forest, Nama Karoo and Grassland biomes – a level of diversity that is globally unparalleled for a city.”

He emphasised the social and economic value of biodiversity, such as attenuating floods, providing clean water of a drinking quality standard, facilitating the pollination of important agricultural crops to support food security, and providing primary sources of food like fish from the wild.

“Ecosystems provide a range of valuable services that we take for granted because we often don’t pay in full for the services they provide,” he said. “When inappropriately located, development results in the loss of important ecosystems and communities often end up paying for the long-term costs of losing these important ecological assets. Good planning means retaining our priority ecological assets when we develop our new settlements and roll out associated services. If we undermine ecosystem services like flood attenuation, for instance, we will have to pay more to install and maintain expensive flood attenuation infrastructure.”

The bioregional plan was gazetted on 30 March 2015 and now provides clear priorities and guidelines for all decisions that impact on biodiversity, including land-use planning, environmental assessment and authorisations, and natural resource management in the municipal area. SRK Consulting produced the Conservation Assessment and Plan for the NMBM in 2010, which underpins the gazetted document, and also assisted with the gazetting process.

Stewart said that bioregional plans assist local municipalities in spatially identifying priority sensitive areas. This information is crucial to enabling municipalities to effectively develop their Spatial Development Frameworks, as per the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act (SPLUMA) 16 of 2013.

“One of the most exciting and challenging achievements of the conservation plan was to minimise the potential conflict between biodiversity and other forms of land-use,” said Stewart. “This involved a lengthy process of engaging a range of players from town planners and property developers to municipal service departments, to understand their needs and to reconcile conflicts.”

He said the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEM: BA) 10 of 2004 requires all government bodies – including municipalities – through the gazetting of the Bioregional Plan to take biodiversity into account when planning and implementing service delivery.

“A bioregional plan like this makes development decisions easier, as the biodiversity conservation priorities within the municipal area are clearly specified,” he said. “In this way, the plan supports the principles of integrated development planning and sustainable development set out in the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) of 1998. It is also fully integrated with the Municipality’s Spatial Development Framework to achieve the best balance between conserving priority biodiversity and accommodating the needs of other sectors.”

While broader biodiversity plans have been conducted at provincial level, a municipal level plan like this can show fine-scale detail of critical biodiversity areas. These are terrestrial and aquatic features that are vital for maintaining a representative proportion of functional ecosystems and the associated goods and services they provide to the Municipality’s residents and visitors, and which therefore need to be kept in their natural state.

“Examples of these features in NMBM include the lowland fynbos in the southern part of the metropolitan area,” said Stewart, “as well as river systems such as the Swartkops River and estuary, which is SA’s top temperate estuary for subsistence value and a vital nursery for fish stocks.”

Having detailed these critical areas, the plan goes on to provide accompanying land-use guidelines for avoiding loss or degradation of natural habitat and good development practice at appropriate natural sites outside of the network of critical biodiversity areas.

The NMBM’s bioregional plan will now be put to work in guiding reactive decisions on environmental impact assessment, agricultural land-use and development control. It will also be used in proactive forward planning – in integrated development plans, spatial development frameworks and zoning schemes – as well as conservation initiatives such as biodiversity stewardship and expanding protected areas.

According to Stewart, SA is fortunate to have been part of a global focus on biodiversity conservation because the country is home to a number of ‘biodiversity hotspots’ as identified by environmental organisation Conservation International; these include the Succulent Karoo region, the Cape Floristic region and the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany region.

Sally Braham

Endangered St Francis Dune Fynbos within the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (1).JPG Map of NMBM Critical Biodiversity Areas with legend and logos (1).jpg
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