What happens in Cape Town, South Africa, when you illegally infill a farmland dam in a sensitive aquifer recharge area with building rubble? The answer is nothing, apparently, or at least so long as you pave it over and make it an illegal bus parking facility. The aerial images above might be characterized as Exhibit “A” in the local and provincial government’s failure to maintain the integrity of Cape Town's Philippi Horticultural Area ("PHA"): land use decisions allowing a charter bus company to operate on zoned farmland in the heart of the PHA.
For years, farmers and residents in the PHA have complained that the government has neglected and undermined the PHA’s role as Cape Town’s breadbasket. Most plainly, various levels of government have taken outright steps that have destabilized the farming integrity of the area, such as approving the conversion of prime agriculture land into master planned suburban developments (covered elsewhere). But a subtler yet arguably more harmful factor is the government’s failure to enforce existing laws and stop illegal uses inconsistent with farming, such as construction dumping and industrial activities, even when violations are obvious.
For example, early last year the Western Cape Province’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEADP) received a complaint regarding infill of a farm dam located on Portion 13 of Farm 705 in the PHA, shown in the image above. Although DEADP inspected the site and confirmed that general waste was unlawfully disposed on the property, the land owner argued that City’s Department of Water and Sanitation had no objections. Upon follow up, DEADP reversed course and concluded no violation of environmental laws because “the property had been cleaned up and . . . the land which had been infilled was converted from a dam to a bus parking area”. Although the land is zoned as agricultural land (see here), it is registered as owned by “Parkers Bus Service”. Aerial images from Google Earth show up to 14 buses being parked in and around the site, as well as broader non-agricultural development over the past 10-20 years.
While it is not entirely clear what DEADP’s justification was for not finding a violation, it appears possible that it concluded that the infill was not covered as a “listed activity” under NEMA regulations. However, NEMA includes as a listed activity “infrastructure or structures with a physical footprint of 100 square metres or more where such development occurs . . . within a watercourse.” The term “watercourse” is defined to include “a . . . dam into which, or from which, water flows.” A dam in the middle of the Cape Flats Aquifer recharge zone would seem to fall under this definition, but DEADP did not explain its justification. At a minimum, NEMA’s duty of care principle and DEADP’s mandate require it to more carefully assess impacts such as dam infilling and bus parking lots in a critical aquifer recharge zone.
More broadly, construction of a parking facility in the middle of the PHA raises larger concerns about how various levels of government are failing to properly coordinate in governing and managing the area. The City and Province are in the middle of undertaking a renewed process to update the plans and policies for the PHA area. While both the Province and the City have committed to support farming in the PHA, the view on the ground suggests that enforcement and coordination, not more plans and policies, are necessary.