Cape Aquifer denials, disinformation

PhilippiDenialsCape Times
Wednesday 06 April, 2016
By: Susana Coleman

MAJOR misrepresentations are being made by the City about plans to develop in the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA). These plans include a “mini city” of over 20 000 gated houses. It will all be situated over the Cape Flats Aquifer’s zone of highest recharge.

One-third of the farmland, which provides up to 70 percent of the city’s vegetables, will disappear. In the two months since Nazeer Sonday’s piece on the danger to the Cape Flats Aquifer (Cape Times, January 29), the City has responded only with distractions, denials, disinformation and claims of “due process”. Let’s unpack this.

Firstly, what is “due process” with regards to paving over rural farmland? In this order:

  • Shift the urban edge.
  • Carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and have it approved.
  • Rezoning.

Secondly, the planning principle requires a clear case for “need” and a clear case for “desirability”.

There is no need to replace productive farmland with middle-class houses on rural land. Yes, there is a housing crisis, that is why in 2010, the City identified 11 000 hectares of developable land, all of which is close to transport and bulk services, and aligns with the City’s own densification policy which states:

“Good agricultural land on the urban edge and elsewhere is rapidly being consumed by urban development, and valuable biodiversity resources and areas of scenic and amenity value are being threatened.”

The observation of a threat to a priceless public good requires one response from the governors: protection. Anything less is maladministration.

Nor is it desirable when the conclusion of the city’s own PEPCO study to evaluate the desirability of such a development states: “Despite the fact that the area is not actively farmed, given the favourable soils, water availability and general growing conditions in the area, as well as the increasing regional water and food security concerns relating to the relative scarcity of suitable (cost-effective) alternative future horticultural growing areas in the metropolitan region, it is believed that the application area should be retained for the future expansion of the actively farmed horticultural area.”

The two most authoritative studies that speak to “desirability”, among several, have never been presented to council: “The Role of the Philippi Horticultural Area in Securing the Future of the City” (August 2012, struck from the agenda on the day) and “Food Systems and Food Security for the City of Cape Town” (July 2014, not released, available only via Paia request).

In fact, all of the “due process”, even internally, illustrates an overwhelming pressure from the governors not to accept consistent empirical evidence and advice to protect the PHA for agricultural purposes. There has been a constant repurposing of terms of reference in order for it to be reworked in favour of development. 

This pressure led to one city planner stating to the mayor: “The extent to which the information is disputed relates, in our view, to the extent to which the members of Mayco consider the information presented by the applicant, with a clear interest in collecting information supportive of motivating for the development of their land, to be of greater weight or bearing to that presented by independent specialists, as well as to the extent to which the expertise of officials is not trusted. This is a difficult matter for officials to address.”  

Johan van der Merwe states that “no decisions have been made” (GroundUp, February 18, 2016) on these developments, and also claims that “due process” (Cape Times, February 4, 2016) is being followed. Well, you can’t claim both. 

On November 26, 2009, a full city council turned down the request to shift the urban edge for developments and voted to preserve the PHA. In January 2014, MEC Bredell turned down a smaller development, refusing to shift the urban edge over on to agricultural land in the south-western PHA, citing, among other things, preservation of the Cape Flats Aquifer.

Yet, on September 9, 2015, the City (a different mayor) approved the development framework for “Oaklands City” and purchased 100 hectares of agricultural land, land for which no EIA has yet been finalised (see 2 above).

In October 2015, the City gave permission to Uvest (the smaller development) to go ahead with rezoning without an EIA – skipping steps one and two.

Must we assume that the City has the go-ahead from the national departments of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs to grant these nationally legislated permissions? In mid-March 2016 – again, no EIA – “Oaklands City” street names and rezoning of the City-identified “high potential agricultural land” for housing was published.

There is also a food crisis. The Rooftops Study notes: “Access to food and water are rights enshrined within the South African Bill of Rights, within the South African constitution: Section 27 1 (b). As the PHA is enabling a significant flow of food to those in need and thus facilitating, in part, the attainment of the right to food, it takes on other forms of significance.

“Removal of the PHA from the Cape Town food system may result in claims that those taking these decisions did not act to uphold the right to food.

“A key factor in the attainment of rights, such as the right to food, as with the right to housing, is that these rights cannot be addressed at the expense of other rights. Thus, removal of the right to food to enable the right to housing would be argued as prejudicial to the communities concerned. As the PHA is currently producing food, thus enabling the attainment of the right to food, its status should remain and other areas sought for housing.”

The late city planner Francois Theunissen stated succinctly in 2008: “To me, the fundamental points are simply that:

  • “The strategic importance of the two reasons for the original proclamation of the PHA is currently and crucially valid in societal interest as it was 20 to 30 years ago.
  • “That context has nothing whatsoever to do with apartheid buffers or apartheid in general, and the applicants’ playing of the racial card in this respect would have been laughable had it not been so sickening.
  • “The big-picture question is not how current land owners use the land, but whether or not it is in societal interest to maintain the integrity of the PHA.
  • “If a block of 30 percent of what remains of the PHA were to be urbanised, the entire PHA will become untenable and, therefore, the question in one’s mind should not be whether one could recommend urbanisation of the land applied for, but whether one could recommend urbanisation of the PHA.

“I don’t want to sound oversimplistic, but this case seems to me to fall under what I like to call the Wilson Principle. President (1913-21) Woodrow Wilson of the USA was fond of saying that there are two sides to any question – the right side and the wrong side. As I have said, this approach is not always valid, but I would venture to suggest that there are two sides to the PHA case now before you: the right side and the wrong side. And this is wrong.”

The right to the value of the PHA does not belong to one developer. The right to the value of this land rests with the citizens of Cape Town; its value should accrue to all of them.

  • Coleman works in Public Health and is a volunteer on the PHA Food & Farming Campaign (find us on Facebook).

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