Subtheme 2: Knowledge and Information
* Angela Andrews of the Legal Resource Centre compiled this summary of the Specialist Report.
The following constitutes a summary of a report written by consultants to the EIAMS process and does not reflect the views of the Legal Resources Centre.
Original Report by Gillian Maree of SSI Environmental
Reliable information on land, climate, water, vegetation, socio-economic factors, and infrastructure is essential to making good decisions in environmental policy. Information management includes the collection, organization, and analysis of data, as well as turning the data into formats (like statistics, reports, and maps) that can be used to communicate the information and make decisions. Proper management of information is crucial to accurately developing future strategies and evaluating progress towards environmental goals.
Currently, information is not being effectively collected, managed, or distributed, resulting in haphazard data collection and an unwillingness to share information. Decisionmakers often do not possess enough knowledge, skills, and resources (such as technology, institutional memory, and finances) to make informed choices. While there is much data that could be used in sustainable development decisionmaking, the problem often lies in finding the right information at the right time at the right scale.
What Information is Available
Mapping information is collected through Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, which is costly and not uniform. The Spatial Data Infrastructure Act 58 of 2003 designated state organs as data custodians – institutions responsible for collecting, maintaining, and providing access to information. The DEA is a custodian for various types of geographic data, such as air quality priority areas, waste facilities, and marine protected areas. Because methods and standards of GIS capture vary across government departments, data from different offices may not match. Data collected and maintained by national government departments are mostly freely available to the public. At the provincial level, data is often more difficult to access, and the type and quality of data available varies widely.
EIA information is available on the National Environmental Assessment System (NEAS). On this electronic system, users can track environmental applications and access environmental reports and record decisions. However, access is limited to a few government staff.
What The Information Is Needed For
Information is needed by various players in the environmental management process, such as developers, EAPs, land use planners, NGOs, and decisionmakers. The flow of information in the current EIA system moves among the different players, from developer to the public to the EAPs to the decisionmaker, and sometimes back again. However, because of outdated or limited access to relevant information, it is difficult for decisionmakers to challenge findings in an EIA and ensure that all relevant information has been considered.
- Data collection, distribution, and storage: Data is collected mostly for specific projects, such as an EIA, using methods tailored to the project and without being integrated into a larger national or regional data set. As a result, collected data is scattered, inconsistent, in different scales, and often not useful for purposes other than the specific project. In addition, data is often not freely distributed, in hard copy only, and limited to those who already know where to go. The high cost of data collection, distribution, storage and maintenance also contribute to the problem.
- Capacity, expertise, and equipment: Data collection and analysis requires technical expertise and special equipment, which are expensive to acquire and maintain. There are not enough staff with the specialized skills, and new technological advances requires continuous training. Training is also needed for users on how to use the information systems. There are also infrastructure issues, such as unreliable power and internet connectivity.
- Networking: Currently there is very little data sharing, and no explicit policies for permission to access, use, or release information. Sharing among different government departments is weak, and even weaker among the government, the public, NGOs, and the private sector. Sometimes data is not shared due to political sensitivity or fear of damage to industries like tourism. Because of data hoarding, few are aware of the availability of environmental information, leading to low demand for it and to decisions being made without critical information.
- Communication: Different users need information presented in different ways. Specialists will need detailed scientific information, whereas community members may need an easy to understand format.
- EIA issues: The above problems with information gathering, analysis, and maintenance have made the EIA process less effective. EIAs are conducted without taking into account the broader context of the specific area or sector where the project will take place, and instead include much unnecessary and expensive information. Often the EIA process is used to collect information about an area in the first instance because there is no baseline information from which to measure the impact an activity will have. Projects that cross boundaries may not have data that matches.
- Develop a clear information management policy geared towards achieving environmental goals, not just data goals.
- Establish five key processes for effective information management:
- Catalogue of what and where information is stored, so that it can be easily accessed and used.
- Standardised data, so that it can be used by many different users for various purposes.
- Digitised data, so that it can be shared and leveraged. The EIA process in particular should become digitized, with all reports and specialist data submitted electronically. The NEAS falls short as it captures only the initial application, not full reports and data, and is not accessible to the general public.
- Data quality assurance, to ensure data reliability.
- Data sharing, so that it is available to all users, stakeholders, and interested parties.
- Provide digital resources with consideration for internet bandwidth and accessibility issues, such as packaging data in the smallest possible file format. Internet access should also be improved in rural areas.
- Strengthen the collection of baseline data (basic information on environment, natural resources, infrastructure, and land uses of an area) by increasing coverage, standardising the scale, linking the information to environmental policies and tools, and allowing access to all stakeholders.
- Recognise the link between natural resources and the people who live there. Socio-economic and demographic information is part of integrated environmental management. Environmental indicators should be linked to development and economic policy.
- Coordinate data sharing between government departments by formal agreement and other channels. Informal networks, however, should be in addition to formal agreements, not the only means of acquiring data.
- Establish data standards linked to specific environmental legislation and policy requirements to ensure that the data collected is actually needed.