Environmental sector needs new entrants

Dr Christo Marais, chief director of natural resource management programmes at the Department of Environmental Affairs, spoke to Roelof Bezuidenhout about challenges and opportunities in the sector.

What are South Africa’s biggest environmental challenges?
The rhino has become a symbol of the need to conserve our biodiversity, and is a stark reminder of the threats faced by animals as well as plants. But the greatest problem is irresponsible land transformation, in some cases coupled with invasive alien species. Invaders play a slow trick, spreading so gradually that their advance is not visible until they are suddenly out of control and it is too late to stop them.

Plants such as triffid weed and famine weed on the country’s eastern seaboard are particularly alarming as they challenge ecosystem functioning in the savannah areas. We’ve already seen the damage that Australian acacias, hakea and pines did – and are still doing – in the Western Cape and how prosopis has infested the Northern Cape and Free State.

As far as water is concerned, the two biggest threats are acid mine drainage and dysfunctional waste water treatment systems – or more accurately, dysfunctional local authorities. Even a single dysfunctional sewerage system can cause immeasurable damage. Pollution poisons large volumes of water, devastating aquatic and riparian zone habitats, and placing primary human health at risk. If the impact of climate change is added, South Africa could face massive outbreaks of disease.

In terms of the volume of water resources available, the greatest threat is the impact of land degradation on dry season flows, floods, and the sedimentation of water infrastructure.

The more degraded the land, the faster the rainwater run-off and the less soil infiltration takes place. By the time the dry season arrives there is no water left in the landscape. Add this to climate change, and it spells natural disaster.  This is exacerbated by the impact of invasive alien tree species in mountain catchment areas and along watercourses.

To get some idea of the potential economic impact of invasive alien trees along rivers, one needs to look at the productive potential of the water used by these trees. Long-term hydrological tests have shown that clearing invasive trees from the riparian area can double the stream flow. Clearing one hectare of dense eucalyptus along a perennial river can increase stream flow by 3 400m3/ ha per year. A conservative assumption is therefore that for every 3ha to 5ha of dense invasive trees cleared along rivers, one hectare of land can be irrigated.

Can the environmental sector cope with these problems?
We have the human resources available to carry out the research and the academic fraternity can also help to build the necessary capacity. We must, however, develop more black scientists. Academics are role models for young scientists and we need young black people to enter the field so that, over time, we’ll have leading black scientists to lead the way forward.

With transformation taking place at top management level, the sector is becoming more representative. More black scientists should therefore consider staying in academia or research agencies to address this challenge. They shouldn’t be lured away by bigger salaries in the private sector because they could potentially augment their income through consulting work. Scientists employed by academic institutions are allowed to undertake external research during about 20% of their time, which brings them in contact with the real ecological challenges. Much of this is applied research and therefore adds value to the environmental sector and the tertiary education of environmentalists.

What job opportunities does the environmental sector offer?

The sector consists of three subsectors: protected areas (PAs), natural resource management (NRM) and environmental protection, which involves environmental impact assessments (EIAs). All three subsectors can be divided into public and private sector components. In the PAs, based on information from the field, there are more or less enough environmentalists to meet demand, but a shortfall in capacity and in the number of staff does occur from time to time. Currently, there are probably more environmentalists in private PAs than public ones, the former being largely carried by the tourism industry.

Demand is growing for environmentalists in the NRM sector. PAs often feature in this regard, as the sector also covers natural resource restoration and maintenance. Water catchment management, climate adaptation and mitigation, and environmental offsets are also creating increasing demand for environmental restoration work. As a result, national and international NGOs are moving into this sector on a large scale, helping to unlock private sector resources to add to the government’s expanded public works programmes funding needs.

These include the environmental protection and infrastructure programmes, Working for Water, Working on Fire, Working for Wetlands, Working for Ecosystems, Working for the Coast, and Working for Forests programmes.

Would you recommend environmental studies to school leavers?
Environmental studies is quite popular, with many students enrolling for the ‘romance’ of it (as I did many years ago). But reality soon sets in. Environmental science students are given a broad base on which to build a career, for example, nature conservation, environmental management, agriculture, mining (restoration of mined areas), horticulture, forestry, and development planning.

The natural resource management sector is also developing rapidly and there is an urgent need to replace older people within the sector with younger entrants. In fact, there is now enormous pressure on the SA National Botanical Institute (SANBI) to increase the placement/absorption rate of younger people in longer term jobs.

Sadly, young graduates complain that they cannot find work because job advertisements ask for experienced applicants. The institute is trying to address this through its Groen Sebenza programme, which gives graduates the opportunity to gain experience and learn on the job. They are placed right across the sector from NRM in central government, such as biosecurity, to conservation agencies and NGOs.

Some have even been employed by private nature reserves in mentorship programmes. Applicants applying for permanent jobs normally outperform their peers, which underscores the potential value of introducing national cadet programmes in other fields.

Why do farmers complain that EIAs are too expensive and the regulations too strict?
The demand for EIAs can sometimes outstrip the supply of consultants in the field, which can lead to high fees being charged.As far as the regulations go, sometimes even environmentalists question the practical implications of some of these. For example, if a farmer shifts more than 5m3 of earth, he requires an EIA. Wetland restoration, which generally goes hand-in-hand with the movement of material, often requires the shifting of more than this amount. However, one has to ask whether it is practical to need approval for changing a donga into a functional system.

On the other hand, irresponsible developers or money-hungry land users have to be prevented from destroying the environment and disincentives should be created to limit these practices. Unfortunately, government does not always have adequate funds available to ensure that this does not happen.

Phone Dr Christo Marais on 021 441 2727 or email [email protected].