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Unauthorised Farmland Dam Expansions in Focus After Controversial Western Cape Application

Published September 21, 2023
9 months ago

A petition of contrition for an unauthorized enlargement of an irrigation dam belonging to a farm near Piketberg, Western Cape, has initiated significant anxiety around the potential for abuse of the province's limited water resources. The petition also illuminates public attention towards potential official approval of unlawful environmental actions, framed under section 24G (S24G) applications of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).

This legislation gives room for a corrective application following unauthorized commencement of listed activities, which can encompass actions with environmental detrimental potentials like dam building or ploughing of untouched fields. Hence, the need for environmental authorization before these activities can commence.

Recently, the Western Cape has experienced a surge of unauthorized and illegal dams built on agricultural sites, leading to considerable impacts on the ecological functioning of local water bodies. Critics are also cautioning of a potentially disturbing trend where reputed farmland owners establish illegal dams and subsequently seek post-approval in knowing that the charges for these environmental infractions might be significantly less than the possible earnings from advanced irrigation methods.

Such warnings come from the Western Cape NEMA authority, the provincial department of environmental affairs and development planning (DEADP), well known for handling S24G application decisions. DEADP is currently reviewing 11 applications related to unlawful water capture and storage. The department has issued three administrative fines. Over the past five years, 21 environmental authorizations were granted with none being refused.

An example of such applications for condonation is one put forward by Piekenierskloof Vrugte (Pty) Ltd, a farming company that in 2017, enlarged the Namaquasfontein Skool Dam from its initial storage capacity of around 1,000m³ to 47,000m³, without proper authorization. The farming company is also seeking approval for a 1.8-kilometer pipeline that includes two minor river intersections, and other additional water infrastructure on the property, including a proposed further enlargement of the dam.

However, critics are not swayed by the environmental consultant's arguments, stating that the applicant's case disregards the total impact on the Verlorenvlei system, which could result in dire consequences. The directorate for biodiversity and coastal management recommends that the applicant's S24G plea should be considered in the context of the worrying trend of alleged illegal activities by landowners. The competent authority must consider the message that rectification in such a context sends out to the governed community.

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