Screening tool simplifies environmental authorisation process

February 25th, 2019, Published in Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

The Department of Environmental Affairs’ Environmental Screening tool is a national online GIS-based tool which creates a centralised system for generating environmental sensitivity reports for areas of proposed development.

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) is responsible for protecting, conserving and improving the South African environment and its natural resources. As part of its mandate, DEA is required to be proactive and foster innovative thinking and solutions for environmental management premised on the Batho Pele principles which recognises the centrality of people in the government’s delivery of services.

In fulfilling its commitment, DEA launched its web-based national geospatial Environmental Screening Tool which aims to provide users the ability to pre-screen their proposed site for environmental impacts before applying for environmental authorisation.

Fig. 1: The six steps of the screening tool process.

Fig. 1: The six steps of the screening tool process.

Working with private and public organisations, the department has collated over 100 environmental datasets such as the South African Protected Areas Database, the Agricultural Land Capability, and Terrestrial Biodiversity data. These datasets have been categorised into themes and have been overlaid with national land parcel and street map data, making it possible for users to identify a proposed development site and establish the environmental sensitivity of the site.

The screening tool was developed using Esri’s geospatial technology and its functionality was designed to comply with the requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations (2014). DEA has been using the company’s software products for over 25 years with the assistance of Esri South Africa.

The project team and developers had to ensure that the screening tool is user-friendly and that GIS functionality was embedded into the tool to allow users to operate the system with just a web connection and without specialised GIS skills. The GIS-based application is centrally managed to support multiple applicants and is a fully configurable system that allows for easy maintenance.

The tool provides users with pertinent and up-to-date information applicable to the process and their identified site. Being a national centralised tool all environmental assessment practitioners (EAPs) and government officials have a common authorisation process. Users are able to search land parcels, identify potential sensitivities and project-specific information, group data by layers or by theme, and generate a report summarising the screening results according to an impact avoidance principal.

Fig. 2: To identify the site of interest users can either upload their own geospatial data of the site or search it in the right-hand panel.

Fig. 2: To identify the site of interest users can either upload their own geospatial data of the site or search it in the right-hand panel.

The final step in the screening process allows users to generate a pre-screening report which is a legal requirement referred to in Regulation16(1)(v) of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations 2014 when applying for environmental authorisation.

There report provides details on all sensitivities, available databases, and the downloadable GIS layers of the site in question. The report identifies related restriction, exclusion or prohibition zones and specific requirements, including specialist studies that are applicable to the proposed site, based on the national sector classification and the environmental sensitivity of the site. Users are then able to access more information linked to these result through hyperlinks where applicable.

Since the tool provides national data, all participants see the same information on sensitive environments, which minimises the duplication of systems providing similar information. In doing so it provides a common methodology for screening by competent authorities, and promotes transparency in the environmental authorisation process.

Aside from the cost-savings involved in leveraging existing Esri technology within the DEA for creating the screening tool, EAPs and competent authorities now have the added convenience of being able to access the application on any device, anywhere, at any time. The number of speculative enquiries sent to competent authorities will also be reduced, allowing them more time to focus on core work activities.

The DEA anticipates that the National Environmental Screening Tool will also enable pre-application meetings to provide EAPs, proponents and authorities with a better understanding of the potential environmental sensitivities and legal triggers, and that it will form a base for discussions on specialist studies.

Contact Verosha Naidoo, Esri South Africa, vnaidoo@esri-southafrica.com

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