Difference between a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

In terms of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), two different but legally equivalent routes towards the authorisation of a project are possible. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) considers a project impact within a specific geographic area with fixed information on the project location and design.

A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a more flexible but nevertheless rigorous process more appropriate for a project such as the SKA_MD. An SEA is an integrated assessment of regional accumulative impact and is used to enable the development of a sustainability framework to inform continuous decision-making over a period. An SEA follows the same principles as an EIA where the focus is on combining environmental, social and economic considerations. An SEA has the potential to promote an integrated system of planning that incorporates sustainability objectives throughout the planning process.

The SKA project in South Africa has been recognised as a national priority which reports to the Presidential Infrastructure Coordination Council as a Strategic Integrated Project (SIP). The cumulative environmental impacts of the SKA project are assessed by the National Department of Environmental Affairs through the SEA to ensure legislative compliance with the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA). The National Research Foundation (NRF – the overarching legal entity that includes the South African SKA business unit) is responsible for implementing the management outcomes of the Integrated Environmental Management Plan (IEMP) which has been developed as part of the SEA.

This includes the implementation of the minimum requirements for construction and operation of the SKA; the environmental principles and environmental management outcomes; mitigation actions and a long-term environmental research and monitoring programme to be implemented by the SKA site.

Differences of emphasis between legally equivalent SEA and EIA processes are summarised in the table below.

Is reactive to a development proposal Is pro-active and informs development proposals
Is used to assess the effect of a proposed development on the environment and socio-economic conditions Is used to assess the effect of an existing environmental and socio-economic conditions on development opportunities and constraints
Relates to a specific project Relates to areas, regions or sectors of development
Enables the identification of project-specific impacts Enables the development of a framework against which positive and negative impacts can be measured
Has a well-defined beginning and end and focuses on informing a specific decision at a particular point Is a process aimed at the development of a sustainability framework to inform continuous decision-making over a period of time
Is focused on the mitigation of negative impacts and the enhancement of positive impacts Is focused on maintaining a chosen level of environmental quality and socio-economic conditions (e.g., through the identification of sustainable objectives and limits of acceptable change)
Has a narrow perspective and induce a high level of detail Has a wide perspective and includes a low level of detail to provide a vision and overall framework

Background and context

MeerKAT and SKA was identified as part of 18 Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs) which are large-scale infrastructure projects of national importance aimed at unlocking the development potential in the country. SKA and MeerKAT is specifically positioned to provide Africa and South Africa with the opportunity to contribute towards global advanced science projects. These SIPs were identified by the Presidential Infrastructure Coordination Commission as strategic catalysts for economic development and job creation through infrastructure development in support of the National Development Plan which was adopted by the South African Government in 2012.

The Infrastructure Development Act [Act No. 23 of 2014] places the SIPs under special consideration where the planning, approvals and implementation of strategic infrastructure development such as the SKA project require a ‘business unusual’ approach. The assessment of the environmental impacts of these strategic infrastructure developments therefore need to take a ‘business unusual’ approach which led to the Department of Environmental Affairs committing to support the efficient implementation of the National Development Plan by undertaking Strategic Environmental Assessments to integrate the regulatory environment requirements of the SIPs. The key environmental management objective of the SKA will be to protect ecologically sensitive areas and support sustainable development and the use of natural resources throughout the lifetime of the SKA, whilst promoting justifiable socio-economic development in the towns in close proximity to the SKA development site.

Activities associated with the development of SKA1_MID are listed in the Government Notices 982, 983, 984 and 985, and therefore authorization is required by the Minister of Environmental Affairs prior to commencement of these listed activities. As such, an environmental management instrument was prepared in terms of Section 24(2)(e) of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) [Act No. 107 of 1998] for the strategic environmental decision making on the development of SKA1_MID.

This Integrated Environment Management Plan (IEMP) is being submitted formally to the Minister of Environmental Affairs for consideration for adoption as an environmental management instrument in terms of Section 24(2)(e) of the NEMA, which will allow for the development of the identified activities associated with the development of the SKA in the geographical location, without environmental authorization, but in line with the environmental management principles and measures of this plan. These principles and management measures have been proposed based on the assessment of the possible environmental sensitivities and impacts and their mitigation and management measures undertaken through a strategic environmental assessment process. This IEMP must be used for strategic environmental decision making on the development of the SKA and legally implements the Strategic Environmental Assessment’s outputs.

This exclusion is considered on condition that the National Research Foundation (NRF) will comply with the adopted instrument (IEMP) [where the NRF is currently the overarching legal entity that includes the South African SKA Offices business units and that this condition will be incumbent upon other legal entities responsible for implementing SKA in South Africa]. All areas delineated as unsuitable for development (no-go areas) during the Strategic Environmental Assessment specialists’ studies will be avoided in the final design of SKA1_MID, including red dunes, large dolerite hills and sandstone rock sheets populations of Aloe dichotoma, depressions and pans, seep wetlands and watercourses, and Grade II and IIIa heritage features. These areas were captured in spatial (Geographic Information Systems – GIS) data format and provided to the South African SKA Office for compliance with the requirements of this instrument (IEMP) during the final design of SKA1_MID.

Should the Minister adopt this IEMP, the NRF further commits to conduct a review and audit of this IEMP at a frequency defined in the most recent published EIA Regulations (but as a minimum every 5 years).