As South Africa adapts to living with the risk of Covid-19 infections, an important recent step by government has been the publishing of directions on how public participation can safely be achieved during environmental authorisation (EA) processes.

According to Selma Nel, principal scientist at SRK Consulting, it is vital that interested and affected parties are consulted and engaged with during environmental authorisation processes.

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Social distancing regulations under the national state of disaster, however, have placed restrictions on public gatherings – making it difficult to undertake certain activities of the legislated stakeholder engagement process.

Valuable guidance from government in June last year has clarified what would now be considered as acceptable alternatives to conventional engagement methods.

This was done through the publishing of the directions regarding measures to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid-19 relating to National environmental permits and licences (Government Notice R650) by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF).

 “It is crucial that all parties ensure that the stakeholder engagement process is undertaken in a fair and transparent manner as certain aspects of the lockdown regulations could possibly result in mistrust between stakeholders,” said Nel.

“The directions are very useful in guiding not only the environmental assessment practitioners (EAPs) but all stakeholders including the competent authorities,” she said.

“This has clarified how to manage an application – whether for environmental, waste, air quality or any other permits and licences.”

Importantly, the directions are aligned with the regulations of the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) – allowing for thorough public participation while curtailing the threat of spreading Covid-19 infections.

The directions published during Level 3 of the lockdown coincided with a return to work by many EAPs and governmental departments; during the period of severely restricted economic activity under Levels 5 and 4, the DEFF had generally allowed extensions to licencing and permitting processes.”

Franciska Lake, partner and principal environmental scientist, emphasised the importance of procedural certainty in the current uncertain times.

“The process of stakeholder engagement can often be challenged if there is any doubt that the correct avenues have not been followed,” said Lake.

“The directions give a level of assurance that everyone can agree on the minimum requirements in respect of stakeholder engagement; of course, this is just a minimum that is stipulated, so more can still be done by EAPs to further enhance the effectiveness of the process.”

Nel notes that the main difficulties in applying conventional stakeholder engagement methods under Covid-19 conditions arise when environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports need to be reviewed by interested parties. Usually, these reports were made available at public places for at least 30 days, during which time public stakeholder meetings would also be held face to face.

“Large projects involve hundreds of stakeholders, and Covid-19 has made it challenging for people to review documents in traditional ways, or for big gatherings to be held,” she said.

“The directions allow documents to be made accessible through a variety of methods, such as traditional authorities and digitally on the EAP’s web platform – where zero-data portals are now likely to prove very useful.”

Nel said that, in terms of public meetings for EA purposes under the current Covid regulations, gatherings are limited to 50 persons or less for indoor venues and 100 persons or less for outdoor venues.

Therefore, public meetings should be carefully planned and managed ensure that all stakeholders feel that the engagement process is fair and transparent.

“The concern with dividing a large community into smaller meetings is a possible perception that the same messages are not being conveyed to everyone,” she said.

“A useful strategy to mitigate this perception is to make available – on a web site, for instance – the comments and response report containing all comments raised during each meeting, which can be viewed by any stakeholders. This helps to assure participants that the process is consistent, fair and transparent.”

Lisl Pullinger, principal consultant sustainability at SRK Consulting, said it was important not to assume that all stakeholders are digitally literate and had access to mobile data to view the information.

“That is why traditional or hybrid stakeholder engagement approaches remain important,” said Pullinger.

Lake noted that combining various engagement methods within a single engagement process is likely to become more common in future.

“The project applicant can facilitate digital and/or smaller group engagements between stakeholders, the EAP and the project team, by providing a venue, applying the necessary social distancing controls and sanitisation protocols, and where needed integrate digital platforms as part of the engagement methods ,” she said.

This will however imply that additional engagement sessions may need to be planned for to ensure all stakeholders are provided with an opportunity to engage on a proposed project.

Nel added that some of the aspects provided through the GN650 directions can be considered and adopted in future stakeholder planning and processes beyond Covid-19 restrictions.