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The role that EIAs are presently playing and can potentially play in promoting sustainability in South Africa

The role of EIA in achieving SD

South Africa has one of the worlds most advanced environmental legal frameworks entrenched with the environmental right to “ecologically sustainable development”. Numerous tools, including Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), are made available within the legal framework as listed in the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA). EIAs have proven useful tools towards achieving sustainability principles as enshrined in Section 2 of the NEMA as well as contributing towards sustainable development. This paper therefore delves into several sustainability theories with the aim of ensuring a sound understanding of the concept of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ which then poses the question as to what role EIAs have in promoting sustainability in South Africa.

The paper concludes with the understanding that whilst it is acknowledged that EIA is not the only tool to achieve sustainability, the EIA process is still a very effective tool in evaluating the sustainability of development proposals. However, to measure the extent to which EIAs substantially address “sustainability”, the sustainability criteria must go beyond adherence to procedural requirements and address substantive considerations such as the sustainable use of resources, poverty and inequality.

For more than a decade, environmental, heritage and planning legislation in South Africa has been challenged to evolve in a manner that can support sustainable development, while protecting Constitutional imperatives. Shippey (2006:1) states that “despite considerable legal reform to meet this challenge, we are still floundering”. This leads us to ask whether our approach to implementation of the philosophy of sustainable development is appropriate (Shippey, 2006:1). Sustainability assessment has become a rapidly developing area (Ness et al., 2007).

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) is one of a number of tools that have a role to play towards achieving the sustainability or sustainable development vision. Other tools which have a role to play in sustainability include, but are not limited to, Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA), Environmental Management Frameworks (EMF), Environmental Management Programmes (EMPs), Environmental Management Systems (EMS) and Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA).

Before the role that EIAs play in sustainability can be critically assessed, a general understanding of the concept is necessary. Weaver et al. (2008:92) states that “sustainability, or sustainable development, is a notoriously ‘fuzzy’ concept that arguably has different meanings at different levels of application and in different contexts”. Addressing this, in 1987 the Brundtland Commission provided its definition for sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987:41). The South African Constitution  makes it  clear  that  “ecologically sustainable development” is to be secured,  while  “promoting  justifiable  economic  and  social  development”1 .  The country’s National Environmental Management Act2  (NEMA) defines sustainable development as “the integration of social, economic and environmental factors into planning, implementation and decision-making so as to ensure that development serves present and future generations”.

This paper critically assesses the role that EIAs presently play and can potentially play in promoting sustainability in South Africa.

The concept of sustainability and sustainable development
The concept of sustainable development has been on the international agenda since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1971. However, the terms sustainability and sustainable development have been used and interpreted in widely different ways.

Sustainability has been defined as “the level of human consumption and activity which can continue into the foreseeable future, so that the systems which provide goods and services to humans persist indefinitely” (WCED, 1987; US National Research Council, 1999 cited in Mayer, 2008:278). Mayer (2008:278) goes on to argue that “sustainability research has become more quantitative and includes more dimensions of sustainability simultaneously, which will allow for more targeted policies to be implemented and their successes tracked more closely”. This complexity is illustrated in Figure 1, in which Mayer (2008:278) explains that “the trajectory of a system, and the position of the system with respect to multidimensional sustainable boundaries, are both necessary to determine system sustainability. A system which is unsustainable in one dimension is not generally sustainable. Multiple indicators are measured for each dimension, and aggregated into an index which identifies the overall position and trajectory of the system (modified from Cabezas et al., 2003)”.


Dimensions of Sustainability

Figure 1: Dimensions of Sustainability
Source: Mayer, 2008:278

Mayer (2008) argues that sustainability comprises three distinctive dimensions, namely resilience, desirability and scale.

O’Connor (2006) proposes a different model for sustainability in what he refers to as the “Four Spheres” framework for sustainability. O’Connor (2006:285) considers that both ethical integrity and systems integrity, although complex, are complements. O’Connor (2006:285) states that “sustainability is characterised as coevolution of economic, social and environmental systems respecting a dynamic “triple bottom line”3  i.e. the simultaneous satisfaction of quality/performance goals pertaining to each of the three spheres”. The fourth category of organisation is the political sphere, which O’Connor (2006:286) defines as the regulation of the social and economic spheres (all of which takes place within the environmental sphere). To illustrate the “Four Spheres”, O’Connor (2006:286) proposes the Tetrahedral Model of Sustainability (refer to Figure 2).


EIA as an agent of incremental change

Figure 2: Tetrahedral Model of Sustainability (also known as the “Four Spheres” of Sustainability)
Source: O’Connor, 2006:286

The fourth sphere i.e. government and/or politics has the role of what O’Connor refers to as a referee in that the various spheres (social, economic and environmental) are often incompatible and thus the political sphere needs to regulate the interrelation’s between the different actors.

The above views by Mayer (2008) and O’Connor (2006) on sustainability ring fence the varying indices/spheres that one could consider when grappling with sustainability. Therefore, the notion of sustainability theory nudges over into the ideal4  which is dubbed ‘sustainable development’. Both developed and developing countries are grappling with sustainable development in varying ways and with varying degrees of success.

National Environmental Management Act (NEMA)5 principles
Presently, the defining legislative context for giving effect to sustainability in South Africa is encapsulated in Chapter 2 of NEMA. The principles, as laid out in Chapter 2 of NEMA, address sustainability and sustainable development to varying degrees.

The efficacy of this principle-based approach to the implementation of the NEMA mandate in achieving sustainability is questionable. Ultimately the NEMA principles remain high-level guidelines – devoid of any tangible form or precise normative content in terms of which the evaluation and measurement of sustainability can be undertaken. Whilst the principles are fundamentally important they must still be the subject of interpretation without regard to tangible sustainability criteria and indicators.

EIAs: Its role in sustianability
Cashmore et al. (2004) state that “EIAs are a decision tool employed to identify and evaluate the probable environmental consequences of certain proposed development actions in order to facilitate informed decision-making and sound environmental management” (Glasson et al, 1999; Morgan, 1998; Sadler, 1996 cited in Cashmore, 2004). EIA in South Africa is defined as “the process of collecting, organising, analysing, interpreting and communicating information that is relevant to the consideration of that application” (NEMA Regulation 543, 2010:10).

EIA’s have progressed steadily in South Africa since the 1970’s in terms of the process as well as the listed activities that apply in terms of the respective listed activities. Currently, the EIA regulations as promulgated in terms of Regulations 543, 544, 546 and 547 are the regulations that apply in the event of a development triggering the need for an assessment.

EIAs as a tool have pros and cons with regard to their role in achieving sustainability and sustainable development viz. limitations and effectiveness. Cashmore et al. (2004) state that “EIA has inherent limitations, but it has the potential to promote sustainable development in multifarious ways, many of which have been largely ignored within the literature. Thus, the contribution of EIA to consent and design decisions can be viewed resolutely as one component of incremental changes in institutions, organisations, philosophy, science and culture”. Cashmore et al. (2004:306) provide a schematic representation of the relationship between the conception of EIA to sustainable development goals and society.


Tetrahedral Model of Sustainability (also known as the “Four Spheres” of Sustainability)












Figure 3: EIA as an agent of incremental change
Source: Cashmore et al. (2004:307)

Cashmore et al. (2004:308) continue that “the potential for EIA to contribute to sustainable development, it is suggested, has been widely underestimated”.

EIAs in South Africa may be hampering our attempts at promoting environmental sound, and ultimately sustainable, development (Spinks et al., 2003:306). The reasoning for this assertion is, as Spinks et al. (2003:315) put it, due to the fact that “EIAs have limitations and thus environmental practitioners need to arm themselves with a greater range of environmental tools to assist them (and key stakeholders) in understanding the full environmental ramifications of specific development proposals”.

Subjectivity also plays a factor in the reliability and robustness of EIAs in terms of public and decision making authority scrutiny. As such, Wilkins (2003) states that “knowledge of the environment will never be sufficient to accurately predict the exact impacts of a project. Assessors are therefore forced to decide on how best to make predictions on future impacts. The personal values of assessors are used in deciding what methodologies to use and how to approach the assessment”.

Concluding Remarks
The often sole reliance on project-level EIA, saddles EIAs with the very difficult challenge of having the project promote sustainability, often within a planning vacuum that has not addressed sustainability. Day-to-day practice should immediately be improved to better address sustainability within the current planning legislative framework, to provide a more credible context within which to undertake and consider EIA applications.

It is imperative to promote the use of “sustainability enhanced” planning tools and maps, which includes, greater use of EMFs, bioregional plans and SEAs, focus on strengthening SDFs (based on EMF) and provide a fast track process where projects “fit” SDFs and strengthen linkages between local and provincial plans. There should be a link of ecological sustainability objectives to performance and delivery outcome agreements, identification and redefining of environmentally damaging government policies and programmes (including inter-generational aspects), and full integration of environmental policy via budgetary, planning and auditing processes as well as to allow civil society to monitor performance against ecological sustainability objectives (Coetzee et al., 2011:9).
This notwithstanding, EIAs do have a role to play towards achieving sustainability and sustainable development, however it is prevalent that the pursuit of sustainable development must firstly be mainstreamed into our planning at the national6, provincial7  and municipal8  levels; as well as into national, provincial and municipal development programmes and projects. Day-to-day practice should immediately be improved to better address sustainability within the current planning legislative framework, and to provide a more credible context within which to undertake and consider EIA applications.

Hardcastle & Gerber (2011:13) appropriately ring fence the notion of sustainable development in the South African context in that current issues that inform “sustainable development” debates must also be addressed in forward planning and EIA practices. Whilst it is acknowledged that EIA is not the only tool to achieve sustainability, the EIA process is still a very effective tool in evaluating the sustainability of development proposals. However, to measure the extent to which EIAs substantially addressed “sustainability”, the sustainability criteria must go beyond adherence to procedural requirements and address substantive considerations such as the sustainable use of resources, poverty and inequality.


  • Cashmore, M, Gwilliam, R, Morgan, R, Cobb, D  and Bond, A. 2004. The interminable issue of effectiveness: substantive purposes, outcomes and research challenges in the advancement of environmental impact assessment theory. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, volume 22, number 4. Beech Tree Publishing. pp 295–310.
  • Cashmore, M. 2004. The role of science in environmental impact assessment: process and procedure versus purpose in the development of theory. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 24. pp 403–426.
  • Coetzee, I, Nel, G, Morris, M.J and Cullinan, C. 2011. Integrating the Legal Tapestry for Ecological Sustainability. IAIAsa National Conference. pp 1-15 .
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  • Mayer, A.L. 2008. Strengths and weaknesses of common sustainability indices for multidimensional systems. Environment International 34. pp 277–291.
  • Ness, B, Urbel-Piirsalu, E, Anderberg, S & Olsson, L. 2007. Categorising tools for sustainability assessment. Ecological Economics 60. pp 498 – 508.
  • O’Connor, M. 2006. The ‘‘Four Spheres’’ framework for sustainability. Ecological Complexity 3. pp 285 – 292.
  • Shippey, K. 2006. Legislating for Sustainability- Is South Africa Heading in the Right Direction? Southern African Planning Institute Conference, Cape Town, March 2006. pp 1-16.
  • Spangenberg, J.H. 2002. Environmental space and the prism of sustainability: frameworks for indicators measuring sustainable development. Ecological Indicators 2. pp 295–309.
  • Spinks, A, Luger, M, Shippey, K and De Villiers, C. 2003. EIAs as an Obstacle to Sound Environmental Management in South Africa: A Practitioners Perspective. IAIAsa National conference 2003. pp 305 - 316.
  • Summers, R. 2011. Defining Sustainability: A Legal Perspective on the Utilisation of Sustainability Criteria and Indicators to Enhance the Achievement of Sustainable Development in Environmental Decision-Making. IAIAsa National Conference. pp 1-13.
  • Troell M, Pihl L, Rönnbäck P, Wennhage H, Söderqvist T, Kautsky N. 2005. Regime shifts and ecosystem services in Swedish coastal soft bottom habitats: when  resilience is undesirable. Ecology and Society 10(1): 30 [online] – 19/08/2011.
  • Vanclay, F. 2004. The Triple Bottom Line and Impact Assessment: How Do TBL, EIA, SIA, SEA and EMS relate to each other? Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management. Vol. 6, No. 3. pp. 265–288.
  • Venturi, F. 2011. Debating  the  Practical  Use  and  Value  of  Sustainability  Criteria  in Providing  Guidance  to  Improve  EIA  Practice  – the  perspective  of  the Environmental Assessment Practitioner. IAIAsa National Conference.
  • WCED, 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Weaver, A, Pope, J,  Morrison-Saunders, A & Lochner, P. 2008. Contributing to sustainability as an environmental impact assessment practitioner. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 26(2). IAIA. pp 91 – 98.


1 Section 24 of the Constitution refers: “Everyone has the right – (a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and (b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that- (i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation; (ii) promote conservation; and (iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”
2 Act No. 107 of 1998.
3 For further reading on Triple Bottom Line theory, Vanclay (2004), in his journal titled “The Triple Bottom Line and Impact Assessment: How do TBL, EIA, SIA, SEA and EMS Relate to Each Other?” further discusses the Triple Bottom Line theory in relation to other impact assessment tools.
4 Assuming an anthropocentric ethic base.
5 Act No. 107 of 1998.
6 National planning level: e.g. economic, industrial and rural development strategies, etc.
7 Provincial planning level: e.g. Provincial Growth and Development Strategies, Provincial Spatial Development Framework, etc.
8 Municipal planning level: e.g. Integrated Development Plans, Spatial Development Frameworks, District Growth and Development Strategies, and Local Economic Development Strategies, etc.


Simon van WykAbout Simon
Simon has ten years environmental management experience. His key areas of expertise include integrated international management systems, working as an environmental control officer, Safety, Health & Environment (SHE) risk assessments, environmental impact assessments and project management. He is a registered professional natural scientist with SACNASP and SAIEES and he is also a corporate member of DMISA as well as a member of the IAIA South Africa. You can contact Simon at Simon.vanWyk@aurecongroup.com.

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