UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20): Department of Environmental Affairs briefing

Water and Sanitation

19 April 2012
Chairperson: Mr J De Lange (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) briefed the Committee, and Members of other portfolio committees, on the lead-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), particularly in regard to the expected outcomes for South Africa. One of the goals of the conference would be to secure a renewed political commitment for sustainable development, as well as measure the progress made in implementing the previous commitment, reached in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). South Africa was expected to reach a  political declaration that focused on the theme of Sustainable Development, generate a framework of action on both a Green Economy and an Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, and reach an agreement on what means would be used to implement these outcomes. The preparatory process in South Africa was outlined, although the Committee Chairperson commented that insufficient consultations were held with Parliament. The Draft Zero Negotiating Text of the Rio+20 Secretariat was used as the basis of consultation. A Member of the DEA later commented that this made no mention of issues related to human settlements. The difficulties of reaching a definition of “the Green Economy” were outlined, but it was noted that Sustainable Development should also be able to create market enhancing mechanisms and economic opportunities, and it was also necessary to define “transitioning”. One of the problems was that developed countries had to date failed to provide financial resources to assist developing countries. The need to consider the Millennium Development Goals was also outlined.

Members noted that the processes to date had been complex, and the DEA was asked to compile and forward a package of relevant documents, to allow Members to prepare themselves thoroughly. A Member suggested that more work was needed in the public domain, and buy-in from citizens must be obtained, and asked why the Department of Human Settlements was not more deeply involved in the working group. There had been problems with the takeover of the sanitation function by this Department which was a contributor to some problems in other departments. Another Member proposed joint ventures between various committees, and although this was agreed to in principle it was pointed out that there was lack of time, although it was recognised that isolated approaches did not assist. Members discussed whether African perspectives would enjoy enough attention and problems around localisation were raised. Members discussed whether it was correct to suggest that countries should be able to apply their own definitions according to their own national priorities, and agreed that a more balanced approach was necessary. Members agreed that a user-friendly, understandable definition was needed, although the difficulties in reaching consensus on any definition were acknowledged. Outreach efforts were outlined, and it was confirmed that further meetings would be held on the issues.

Meeting report

United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20): Department of Environmental Affairs briefing
The Chairperson noted that the briefing to be given by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) would assist the Committee in preparing for the Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) in June, in Brazil. Meetings would be held, in the run-up to the conference, by Globe-SA, amongst others, and the DEA would take the lead in the legislative forum, and ensure that government was prepared for the conference.

Ms Nosipho Ngcaba, Director General, Department of Environmental Affairs, said she hoped South Africans and the international community were optimistic for the future.

Ms Dorah Nteo, Chief Director, Department of Environmental Affairs, outlined some expected outcomes of the Rio +20 conference. Some countries had suggested that, because uncertainties around its aims, the conference should rather be called “Rio +20 Contributions to the Future We Want”. Nevertheless, one of the goals of the conference would be to
secure a renewed political commitment for sustainable development, as well as measure the progress made in implementing the previous commitment, reached in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The Rio +20 Conference would focus on defining a framework of action for a Green Economy and an Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development (IFSD), in global contexts.

Ms Nteo recapped all the previous summits on climate change and sustainable development that had been held since 1972 (see attached document for details), and said that the National Strategy on Sustainable Development (NSSD) was a product of these previous summits. The
Rio +20 Conference must discuss whether these strategies were still relevant.

She then outlined the preparatory process in South Africa. There had been
regular intergovernmental meetings, with all departments involved. There had also been bi-monthly multi-stakeholder consultations with the private sector, non governmental organisations (NGOs), labour and civil organisations, academia and research institutions.

The Chairperson interjected to say that insufficient consultations were held with Parliament.

Ms Nteo apologised and said that
the DEA hoped to consult Parliament on this matter by mid-May.

She continued that the Draft Zero Negotiating Text, which was released by the Secretariat of Rio +20 in November 2011, had been used as the basis of negotiations during consultations. Any member of the public could access this document via the Internet. During negotiations with other international actors, it had been agreed that consensus must be reached on a definition for the “Green Economy”, and that its implementation must be underlined by national priorities and objectives. The European Union had said South Africa’s roadmap for a Green Economy must be similar to that in other countries, but this would be difficult as the national priorities and objectives of South Africa differed from those of, for instance, America (USA). If a country’s economy was not “green enough”, it might face potential economic restrictions. It was therefore important to implement Sustainable Development in such a way that market enhancing mechanisms and economic opportunities could be created. However, as noted by the G77 countries, there was a need to defined what “transitioning” meant before a country could transition to a Green Economy.

Some had said that African states should just have a toolkit for Green Economy and share this with others, though such a toolkit would exempt countries from making proper commitments. Over the years, implementation of Sustainable Development had been monitored by the Commission on Sustainable Development, which met annually at the UN headquarters under the Economic and Social Council. This Council also monitored developed countries’ commitments in providing Official Development Assistance to developing countries, including those in Africa, with the means to implement Sustainable Development, such as finance, technology, co-operation and capacity building. However, it was difficult to request more funds, given the financial crisis that faced Western countries. Also, as far as South Africa was concerned, its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) should suit its national priorities and circumstances, but must also, if possible, be in line with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In conclusion, Ms Nteo asked the Committee to take note of the preparatory process, to comment on South Africa’s draft position, and be aware of all important dates of consultations and meetings in preparation for the Rio +20 Conference.

The Chairperson thanked Ms Nteo. He acknowledged the complex processes that had taken place over the last 40 years, and agreed it was crucial that all Members familiarise themselves with the details of these events. He asked the Director General of DEA to assemble and forward to the Members a package containing all the main documents. He said it was important to discuss any queries related to the expected outcomes of the Rio +20 Conference. 

Mr G Morgan (DA) said that 2012 would be a very important year for South Africa in terms of Sustainable Development discussions and decision-making. While it was correct to focus on the Rio +20 Conference, it was crucial that government do more work in the public domain. As the host of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, all eyes would be on South Africa, and people would ask valid questions about the legislative advancements and progress made by South Africa since then. Therefore, during the coming months, issues around the threats and concepts related to Sustainable Development must receive public attention. At Rio, South Africa’s position on Sustainable Development must resonate with ordinary South Africans, so full buy-in from the South Africa public was essential.

Ms G Borman (ANC) said she was aware that many members were not experts on the complex background of Sustainable Development. She asked why the Department of Human Settlements (DHS) was not sufficiently involved in the intergovernmental working groups that formed part of South Africa’s preparatory process for Rio +20.

Mr S Sizani (ANC), Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Rural Development and Land Reform, said that developing countries should practise national sovereignty when transitioning into a Green Economy, meaning they should follow their own paths of development. He also expressed concern about those countries that tended to opt out of international legally binding mechanisms that were discussed during previous summits. During the transition from MDGs to SDGs everyone must be very clear on what was meant by Sustainable Development. He proposed a joint venture on the issue between the Portfolio Committees on Rural Development, Agriculture, and Water and Environmental Affairs. He said there must be increased interaction between Chairs, Members and the constituencies that they represent, to achieve greater clarity and understanding of the Sustainable Development issues.

The Chairperson agreed with Mr Sizani, saying that various departments and committees should not work in silos. However, due to time constraints, it was impossible to organise joint projects now. Public hearings on the NSSD were scheduled for later in 2012, but these would now be preceded by a briefing in June, whereafter others could get involved. It was important for Africa to operate in its own space when setting SDGs. South Africa and the Continent must not succumb to the demands of developed countries. When drafting South Africa’s position on Sustainable Development, it was important to consider equity and a differentiated approach, but the developing world must not simply be allowed to do as it pleased. Despite what was said during the presentation, the position in all countries should not merely accept what the developed world wants.  

Mr J Skosana (ANC) welcomed the complex input presented by the DEA, which he said contained an international ideology, noting meetings with other countries. In addition to the DEA, other departments must also get involved and deal with the issue of development in South Africa. If departments were not working together, it would be very difficult to monitor and evaluate the implementation of resolutions. 

A representative from the Department of Human Settlements (DHS) was concerned that the African perspective would not enjoy enough attention during the multilateral forum at the Rio +20 Conference. The question was how South Africa would balance the perspective of Africa with the needs of the other BRICS member states. The issue of localisation was also raised. There was some difficulty, with international talks, in narrowing down the scope, to make issues more relevant to actors on the ground. It was also necessary to consider how informal settlements and basic services would be dealt with, in light of the general issue of Sustainable Development.

A Member, who was also a Member of the Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry, noted that he was uncomfortable with the statement, in a document, to the effect that “The Green Economy should be defined and applied by each country based on their national priorities as well as their own economic circumstances.” If this approach was followed, he wondered what the point would be of discussing Sustainable Development issues at a worldwide forum, as it suggested that South Africa should merely develop and implement its own policy on Sustainable Development. He was concerned that an approach guided by national objectives might be a little selfish.

The Chairperson agreed with this point, saying it was similar to the point raised by Mr Sizani. Indeed, South Africa’s national priorities must be important, and it could not be expected to have the same standards as the developing world, but that did not mean that developing countries should have “a blank cheque” to operate as they pleased.

Ms C Zikalala (IFP) responded to the issue of localisation. She noted that she would have to explain to her constituency what was meant by climate change, and she suggested that the definition of a green economy had to be phrased in such a way that ordinary South Africans could understand it. She noted the low attendance at this meeting, and said members from other departments must not think climate change was an issue that concerned only the DEA as it concerned every department.

The Chairperson explained that the low turnout was due to the short notice at which the meeting was called, as it had been brought forward from its intended date, one month hence, in order to prepare Members for another meeting that afternoon.

The Chairperson doubted that South Africa had yet reached consensus on a definition for Green Economy. For him, it meant building the economy in a way that sustained natural resources, but others, especially the business community, regarded ecology as subservient to the economy. Therefore, it was important that the Portfolio Committee on Water and Environmental Affairs put forward its own definition of a Green Economy.

Mr Sizani said that a particular document was still classified as “Secret” online.

The Director General and the Chairperson reassured Mr Sizani that the document had been adopted by Cabinet in November 2011, and thus would have to be declassified.

A Member noted that there was not enough transparency in the transition stage when sanitation issues were included under the scope of Department of Human Settlements. She referred to a paper titled “Rio +20: A Human Settlements Perspective”. She said it was crucial for departments to work in collaboration on the issue of Sustainable Development, and asked how the DEA’s presentation was linked to the DHS.

The Chairperson acknowledged her point. He said the process of moving sanitation to DHS was not done in accordance with standard legal procedure, and the implications were visible. The failure of the Department of Water Affairs to meet its targets was partly due to this move.

The Chairperson said he would look into how Parliament could work to impact on the outcomes mentioned in the presentation. The preparations for the Rio +20 Conference should be done similar to the National Planning Commission’s preparations, where everything was broken up into clusters so that all departments could get involved.

Ms Nteo responded to the issues of national sovereignty raised by Mr Sizani. While all countries must work towards a common goal, it was permissible for a country to take a different approach depending on its specific circumstances. The vision for Sustainable Development required a global architecture, but South Africa could, for example, set its own time-bound targets. South Africa and other developing countries did not have the same institutional capacity as developed countries, and for this reason could not be expected to meet all requirements in the same way.

The Chairperson interrupted, saying that these issues should not be discussed in such broad terms, because then it was left open-ended. Whilst developing countries may well insist on following their own national priorities, they must at least make it clear to the world what they wanted to achieve. Therefore, the DEA must be more nuanced in its response, and include some minimum requirements for a Green Economy. If the discussion remained open-ended then it would lead to the same lack of international agreement that accompanied the discussions on climate change.

Mr Sizani reminded the Chairperson and the Chief Director that his point had been that developed countries tended to opt out of their obligations to assist developing countries.

Ms Ngcaba said she would provide the detail necessary to articulate a framework for South Africa on Sustainable Development. With regard to the issue raised about interdepartmental participation, she confirmed there had been a cluster meeting on Sustainable Development on the previous day, which  many Directors General attended. On the BRICS issue, she admitted member states were not a uniform group, and disagreement was inevitable. The outcome that Brazil, Russia, India and China were aiming for differed from the African perspective, and considering Brazil was hosting the conference, its preferred outcome was likely to get priority, though the African negotiating team had said that this would not be a pre-determined fact.

Mr Z Fakir, Deputy Director General, AU International, said that while BRICS members had common economic aims, in reality South Africa’s stance on Sustainable Development would be more aligned with Africa. Despite the publicity of international summits, they really achieved discussion of local problems in rural areas at a global forum, with countries seeking funding and other means of implementing projects. South Africans should not engage in summits in isolation, and must be aware of all the issues. A Green Economy was essentially no different to Sustainable Development. The Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) talked of “green growth”, which aimed to create “economic growth” by using environmental approaches. Instead of debating the definition of such terms, he considered that it was more important to deal with the developed countries who failed to deliver financial resources to help developing countries implement their plans. Therefore, the institutional framework needed to change. In reality there were no enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure compliance from countries. When developed countries failed to comply with binding agreements, they might be condemned in the media, but this was not enough. The United Nations Environment Programme must be able to enforce punitive action against non-compliant countries. ,  

The Chairperson said he knew what Mr Fakir was trying to say, but he did not think it sounded appropriate. It was not enough to criticise the lack of progress, without focusing on the items on South Africa’s agenda. South Africa had to strive for certain outcomes at the Rio +20 Conference, try to define concepts such as Green Economy and Sustainable Development, help set a standard for the developing world in order to agree on a common framework for Rio.

Mr Fakir responded by saying he did not mean to be over-critical, but wanted to emphasise that it was important to use the platform at international summits, such as Rio +20, to help South Africa implement the NSSD.

The Chairperson responded that the real challenge was to translate broad, open-ended statements into words that would not offend the developing world, whilst also gaining a better understanding of what a Green Economy comprised.

Ms Nteo responded to the issue of outreach. As the custodian of WSSD, South Africa’s government had made plans to hold public hearings during May to get feedback on the outcomes of COP17. Also in May, there would be a range of provincial public consultative meetings about issues on the Rio +20 agenda. In June, the DEA would celebrate Environment Month, and activities around themes of the Green Economy would be held and covered in the media.

Ms Nteo noted that localised change would be incremental. There had been a focus on developing rural communities and small towns with the Eco-Town Programme, which employed local youths to start recycling, street sweeping, to create awareness, and to participate in organising plays and concerts around environmental themes. In regard to rapid growth in rural settlements, she said that local government had been working to accommodate this growth along the lines of a Green Economy, by focusing on urban renewal, and agriculture in urban settings, like rooftop vegetable gardens.

Ms Lize McCourt, Chief Operating Officer, Department of Environmental Affairs, noted that the Draft Zero Negotiating Text, which was available on the Rio +20 website, failed to make sufficient mention of issues related to human settlements. South Africa, as part of Africa and G77, would inevitably have tensions with its partners during the negotiation process, because countries viewed the Green Economy in different ways. She recommended that the DEA should meet with the Committee again later in May, to further discuss issues leading up to the Rio +20 Conference.

The Chairperson said that public hearings on the matter would go ahead as well. He would try to organise future meetings so that other Portfolio Committees and Parliamentary officials who wished to add their comments on Sustainable Development could get involved.

He reminded the DEA to assemble and circulate a package of documents. He also noted that South Africa must consult with other groups in which it participated, such as BRICS, G77 and African Union, long before the Rio +20 Conference, to formulate a clear position on Green Economy and Sustainable Development. He hoped further engagements with the DEA would deal with the issues in more detail.

The meeting was adjourned.


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