Environmental impact assessment in South Africa - what difference can a sustainability assessment make?
Sustainability is a concept that has the objective of dealing with the immediate and future ‘needs’ of society while attempting to take the ‘limitations’ imposed by the ecological damage into account. The term sustainability is an ambiguous one which then allows it to be interpreted in many different ways. The needs of society, which change over time, are governed by the intra- and inter-generational equity aspect of sustainability. The assessment of the ecological aspect of sustainability is a snap-shot image based on the situation prevailing when the assessment is undertaken whilst having to take the dynamic nature of sustainability into account. Assessing the sustainability of a development then places both an immediate and future-based limitation on it. This study had the prime objective of defining a method of including the sustainability related aspects into the task of environmental assessment. A comprehensive study of the literature yielded a developing attitude of making use of the applied scientific principles in the assessment process. There is a notion that the assessment of the environment should form part of the paradigm of engineering science so that the application of the scientific principles will be allowed to influence the decision making resulting from an assessment. There is a school of thought in the literature that advocates the use of system based procedures to the definition of the environment being assessed. The use of engineering based processes in conjunction with the system based definition allows the unencumbered application of the integrated environmental management procedures to achieve the goal of assessing sustainability. Subsequent to the literature study and the resulting discussion and debate of the prescriptions contained in the literature, a system based model to allow the spatial and temporal aspects of sustainability to be included in the definition of an assessment has been described. The operation of this model has been discussed in detail. The final part of this study has been devoted to investigating whether the application of a sustainability assessment using the model proposed would have resulted in different environmental decisions arising from the application of an EIA process. The final decision arrived at in this study is that an application of a sustainability assessment based on a system based model of sustainability together with the applicable engineering science will make a difference to EIA in South Africa. The application of a system based model will specifically ensure the application of the sustainability principles in the EIA process and ensure the holistic interpretation of a development being assessed.