Online tool to simplify environmental sensitivity screening

April 24th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: EE Publishers

The National Web based Environmental Screening Tool developed by the Department of Environmental Affairs aims is to provide users with readily available spatial datasets to fast track the environmental assessment process by providing timeous reports with less frustration.

In November 2015 the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) embarked on the development of a “National Web based Environmental Screening Tool” commonly referred to as the “Screening Tool”. Even before 2015, DEA personnel quite often approached the GIS personnel with the question, “Can the locality of applications for development be placed on top of your (GIS) spatial layers in order to evaluate or assess sensitivities in the vicinity of the planned activity?” This need clearly stood out in time and could be seen as a precursor to the development of the Screening Tool.

A comprehensive tool

The name “National Web based Environmental Screening Tool” describes the tool.

Firstly, the focus is on national datasets in order to provide complete data coverage for the country. Many people have good quality data on specific areas, however each with its own challenges in terms of different projections, different scales of capture and therefore varying quality, some data captured once off and other maintained. With this in mind it was decided that having national datasets that are current and sourced from identified custodians would provide a sound foundation for the tool.

Secondly, the tool is web-based and therefore readily available through the various web browsers and anybody has access to and can use the tool with no need to be a GIS expert or have the EAP skills.

The focus is to use environmental data and data that complements the environmental decision-making processes in order to flag environmental sensitivities.

Lastly it is a tool or instrument that can be used as a desktop study to “screen” a specific locality in terms of the available environmental data and the related environmental sensitivities such as critical biodiversity areas, location of protected areas, and so forth. In due time a comprehensive database of existing applications, whether approved or declined, will form part of the platform to further support decision-making.

Legal mandate

This tool identifies environmental sensitivities on a site and/or development footprint and accordingly produces a site or development footprint environmental sensitivity report which is required in terms of Section 16(1)(b)(v) of the 2014 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations. This section states that “an application for environmental authorisation must be accompanied inter alia by a report, generated by a National Web based Environmental Screening Tool once it is developed”.

The National Development Plan (NDP) calls for an efficient and effective environmental legislative process including the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process. The development of the tool forms part of ensuring this ongoing improvement of the EIA process for efficiency and effectiveness in terms of balancing economic development and conservation of our resources for generations to come on a sustainable foundation.

To add to this focus, the responsibility for the provision of a safe and healthy environment is outlined in different sections of the Constitution. Section 24 of the Constitution provides that everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being; and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

During the preparation of the tool, the national sector classification, required in terms of section 9 of the EIA Regulations, has also been prepared. Section 9 states that “the format of any application form, must include the national sector classification for the activities applied for, once established”.

Structure of the tool

The Screening Tool aims to provide the user with a wealth of spatial data to determine the sensitivities to take into account at the locality of the envisioned application. The web based platform can be access at https://screening.environment.gov.za. There is also a training webinar which provides a two-hour online training session where users can familiarise themselves with the functionality.

The tool’s homepage has six distinct sections:

  • “I agree to the Terms and Conditions” – tick to be able to move forward
  • Pane 1 – “What is the Screening Tool” – contain general background information
  • Pane 2 – “Latest News” – PDF documents related to EIA Regulations, Webinar, etc.
  • Pane 3 – “Contact Us” – Telephone contacts, Screening Tool assistance, EIA Process queries.
  • CA Login – Competent Authority Login once the CIPS (Coordinated and Integrated Permitting System) has been finalised.
  • “Need help?” – Access to a detailed “Screening Tool Online Help” document.

The Screening Tool workflow has six steps:

  • Select the National Sector Classification Category
  • Identify Site
  • Check Site Sensitivity
  • Place Footprint
  • Check Footprint Sensitivity
  • Generate Report

Selecting the national sector classification category

The applicant has to classify the development before environmental screening can commence (Fig. 1). The top bar on the relevant screen provides a list of application types to be considered and to be used to assist the system to access all relevant spatial layers to be considered in the reporting process.

Fig. 1: The type of development determines the methodology and spatial layers that will be used for the report.

Fig. 1: The type of development determines the methodology and spatial layers that will be used for the report.

In Fig. 1, when selecting “Services” and a sub-classification “Hospitality”, a “General related methodology” will be used. Various methodologies may be developed over time, such as a “Wind & Solar” methodology which addresses all the spatial data layers that forms part of that specific methodology. The methodology selected determines the all relevant and available spatial data for the selected theme and reporting.

Identifying the site

After selecting a “Classification Category” the system will guide the user to the map page, which comprises the layers pane (left) that includes the “Add Data” option, the map in the centre and the “Identify Site” pane (right) (Fig. 2).

Fig 2: The main window with three panes from where most of the workflow processes are controlled.

Fig 2: The main window with three panes from where most of the workflow processes are controlled.

The layers pane

Checking and unchecking the checkbox next to a map service, group layer, or layer allows toggling the visibility on the map of the selected map services or layers. The visibility also depends on each layer’s display range (scale dependent). When the layer is out of range, it is not visible on the map and its checkbox on the list is dimmed (greyed out).

Each map service, group layer, or layer in the list has its own menu (striped icon) which opens a drop down from where users can define properties of the map service, group layer, or layer.

The “Add Data Pane” provides users the option to add layers of their choice to the map in formats such as CSV, KML, KMZ and zipped shapefiles as well as linking map services such as ArcGIS Server Map services, ArcGIS Server Feature Services and web map services (WMS)

The map

The map pane in the centre is a typical GIS environment for viewing the data layers and features a basemap switcher, navigation options, scalebar and the “Application Area Manager” (red button) which lets users quickly find, edit or delete site areas and development footprints, and acts as a placeholder for the site and footprint(s) generated.

Identify site pane

This pane is the critical second step in the tool’s workflow and serves to zoom to the area of interest on the map and to create the site area. Steps 2 to 6 (“Identify sight”, “Check Site Sensitivity”, “Place Footprint”, “Check Footprint Sensitivity” and “Generate Report”) are all executed from this pane.

The site area can be created using different tabs, the “Shapefile Tab” to upload an existing zipped shapefile, the “Coordinates Tab” to type known coordinates (decimal degrees or degrees-minutes-second formats), the “Draw Tab” where the site area can be drawn free-hand as a polygon and the “Search Tab” used to find an area of interest (erf number, SG code, farm number, farm name, place name) on the map and zoom to it once selected.

The aim will always be to create one site in order to create a “Site Report” or one site with multiple footprints. If the user chooses to create different sites they will accordingly create different site reports.

A typical example is where a farm owner wishes to clear land for a development.  The farm could be large, e.g, 10 000 ha, however the planned activity may be 1 to 2 ha. The steps to follow will be to check the site sensitivity for the farm (10 000 ha), and from the result place a footprint (or multiple footprints) accordingly based on an “impact avoidance hierarchy”. Once the site and footprint(s) have been added to the map, it is displayed in the “Application Area Manager” (red button) and can be edited as needed.

Checking site sensitivity

The tab labelled “Check Site Sensitivity” serves to explore the environmental sensitivities of the site. After checking the site sensitivity a report (with a date stamp) can be created for further research or to proceed with the placing of a footprint(s) based on the sensitivity avoidance principle.

There are four sensitivity classes (Very High, High, Medium and Low) used to indicate the sensitivities for the various sensitivity themes that coincide with the selected area (Fig. 3). Checking the sensitivities provides the user with a list of sensitivities by theme as well as the option to visually display each theme on the map.

Fig 3: Relevant sensitivity themes are evaluated into four sensitivity classes.

Fig 3: Relevant sensitivity themes are evaluated into four sensitivity classes.

Users can also download all layers that intersect with the created site and to download the site boundary as well.  This has the benefit of being able to later upload the site boundary and rerun the report, or to use local expertise in assessing the available data as downloaded in conjunction with other datasets at the applicant’s disposal.

At this point the user can either generate a site report or proceed to place a footprint.

Placing a footprint

The fourth step serves to create one or more development footprints. Clicking the “Place Footprint” button shows a pane with the same five tabs as the “Identify Site” pane used in the previous step. The procedure for placing a footprint therefore resembles that of identifying a site (i.e. repeat step 2). The development footprints must lie inside the site area. It is anticipated that most users will use the drawing tool under the “Draw” tab to demarcate footprints.

Fig 4: Development footprints are placed within the selected sites, as reports are generated on a per site basis.

Fig 4: Development footprints are placed within the selected sites, as reports are generated on a per site basis.

Fig. 4 shows that a large portion of the site falls within a “Very High” sensitivity for the “Terrestrial Biodiversity Theme”. Using the available spatial information the applicant could determine two potential footprints for a potential development to ensure a “Low” impact. Note that the footprints are displayed underneath the site in the “Application Area Manager” hierarchy.

Check footprint sensitivity

The same pane used to assess the site sensitivity will also be used to assess the footprint sensitivity so as to determine the best placement for the footprints.

Generating the report

Fig. 5: The generated report.

Fig. 5: The generated report.

The final step before uploading a dated and current report to the CIPS system, is to click on the “Generate Full Report” button. The user can then upload logos and photos for the over page, and then proceed to download the report.

The report includes information on, among other things:

  • An interactive contents pane
  • Dated pages
  • Project location information of the proposed “site” and related “footprint(s)” – cadastral location
  • Proximity to wind and solar developments, Development Zones and Environmental Management Frameworks (EMFs)
  • Relevant development incentives, restrictions, exclusions or prohibitions and related maps
  • Specialist assessments identified and access to assessment protocols
  • Maps of the proposed “site” and/or “footprint(s)” per theme sensitivity

Comprehensive and readily available spatial data

The aim of the National Web based Environmental Screening Tool is to provide users with readily available spatial datasets to assist with the assessment of potential sensitivities in the locality/vicinity of development applications. The tool will always be a “screening” tool and never take the place of ground verification. The hope is that it will be a useful guide to all users regarding the presence of sensitivities, provide quality and accurate data at the user’s fingertips and fast track the assessment process to provide timeous reports with less frustration.

There are two importance contacts for the Screening Tool: the GIS personnel at DEA regarding the way the Screening Tool functions: screening@environment.gov.za and EIA personnel regarding the EIA process and understanding assessments to be performed: eiaadmin@environment.gov.za

Contact Deon Marais, DEA, marais@environment.gov.za

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