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Environmental information

Serious gaps in environmental data

Good policy decisions need to be based on timely,consistent, and accurate information. Such information needs to be collected on an ongoing basis. We also need systems for detecting trends in the data collected, to be used for modifying policy when necessary.
Serious gaps in environmental data greatly hamper our efforts to make better policy decisions. The current South Africa Environment Outlook report had to rely on inventory data for greenhouse gases that are more than 10 years out of date.
Critical indicators for which we have no adequate data include current land cover, fine-scale spatial information on habitat degradation, and some aspects of water quality, air quality, and carbon emissions. We also do not have reliable data on genetically modified organisms, human vulnerability,or groundwater use and recharge, and we have limited knowledge of some aspects of biodiversity.
There is, furthermore, a need for a consolidated and consistent monitoring and evaluation system. Currently, many data-generation exercises, such as the population Census and national land cover assessments, do not coincide with reporting programmes including the state of environment reports. Monitoring is often not carried out at regular intervals, and in some cases is so sparse that meaningful interpretation over large spatial scales cannot be made.
South Africa has taken steps since 1999 to improve the nation’s database. A set of environmental indicators was published in 2002 for use in state of environment reporting. These and other indicators, such as those set out in the Millennium Development Goals and the 2004 Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, are reported on in the Environment Outlook.
Several reports on the state of rivers systems and an interim report on the state of our coast have been published, and a national inventory of wetlands is being compiled. South Africa contributed to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and recently conducted the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment. Several provinces and municipalities have produced state of environment reports.
In addition to improving the quality of information, it is important to ensure that the public has access to it. Access to information and public consultation are key principles of all legislation since 1994. While legal provisions for access to environmental information are strong, implementation of these laws is weak and many citizens are not aware of their rights. This hampers the achievement of greater environmental justice.
We need adequate investment in research and development to contribute to improved data. Steps to promote research and development in South Africa include adopting the National System of Innovation. Research and development in South Africa is still constrained by a lack of funding,however. In the 2003/2004 financial year, the business sector accounted for 55.5% of research and development expenditure, followed by the government, including the science councils, at 21.9%. Some 10% of funding came from foreign sources. The base of skilled technical professionals needs to be grown to reflect better the demography of the country.
Biodiversity and ecosystems
The indicators presented in this chapter give an overview of the status of South Africa’s biodiversity. The validity of some of the indicators is questionable in terms of their age and comprehensiveness but they nevertheless represent an appropriate starting point for action and analysis. There remain some critical indicators for which we have no adequate data and without which our assessment of the current situation is incomplete. The most important of these include up-to-date land-cover information, as well as information at finer scales of the spatial distribution of habitat degradation and sensitive areas. There are, furthermore, several developing trends (such as the increased prevalence of genetically modified organisms, which might prove, in the future, to have adverse effects on biodiversity but for which we currently do not have reliable data.
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