South African National Biodiversity Institute & South African Weather Service on their functions

Environment, Forestry and Fisheries

07 August 2015
Chairperson: Mr J Mthembu (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

During this meeting, the Committee had a chance to learn more about the functions of the South African Weather Service (SAWS) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), two of the four components of the Department of Environmental Affairs, in order for the Committee to better oversee the Department and hold these entities to their mandates.

The SAWS delegation made it clear that their services far exceeded simply providing daily maximum and minimum temperatures. Their work included flight control and monitoring, air safety, disaster prediction and readiness programmes, coastline protection and research, and research on climate change are all conducted by the SAWS. At 155 years old, the SAWS is the oldest weather service in the world, which helps research because of the years of data collected. The SAWS provides training and other guidance to regional partners as well as the entirety of Africa, and has received many accolades for their leadership from various international organisations. They were currently striving to spread awareness of and participation in climate sciences through a National Education Plan and bursaries for university studies.

The Committee pressed the delegation for more information on the SAWS’ role in the region and their education initiatives. Members asked what sorts of public relations programmes were underway to better educate the people on the role of the SAWS and how ready communities are to respond to various natural disasters. Finally, Members enquired as to how the troves of data collected by the SAWS are being put to scientific use. SAWS admitted that South Africa bears most of the burden in this area regionally because only five other AU nations have the infrastructure necessary to monitor climate. SAWS agreed that this data must be used for the common good, and pointed out how helpful such data would be in shaping the government’s response to climate change. They then spoke further about the bursary programmes and thanked Parliament for funding these programmes. They finally explained the various media and outreach programs that the SAWS has underway.

The floor was given to the SANBI delegation. SANBI runs the eleven National Botanical Gardens, catalogs biodiversity in the country, and helps address the issues of invasive species and climate change. SANBI had recently opened a new National Botanical Garden near East London and will soon open another in Limpopo. The SANBI was currently applying for international funding to help it better address climate change. Though the SANBI programme GroenSebenzahas had not yet met its goal of finding employment for 800 young scientists, it had at this point placed 590 and will place more through its various education and awareness programmes. These programmes address the need for more scientific specialists in South Africa. The delegation requested funding help to improve out of date technology so that South Africa might catch up with Brazil in this field.

The Committee expressed concern that National Gardens tend to be located in areas of privilege, and that townships do not have access to these wonderful spaces. They asked questions about the impact of pollution on biodiversity and the size of the wildlife economy. They also wanted to be sure that the SANBI has the funding it needs to meet its mandate. The delegation replied that far more local gardens exist, but that also the locations for the newer National Botanical Gardens have been chosen with the people in mind. The delegation gave one of many possible examples of the effect of pollution on biodiversity. A presentation on the wildlife economy will be given at a later date. 

Meeting report

The Chairperson opened the meeting by noting that not enough MPs were present to make any decision, thus the purpose of the meeting would be to afford these two entities, South African Weather Service (SAWS) and South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), an opportunity to brief about what they do and how they are doing with their mandate.

The Chairperson said this meeting is not to hold the Department accountable, but rather only to explain the challenges and accomplishments of the Department. He noted that in today’s post-apartheid world that the Department must account for all South Africans, especially those in the periphery, and to protect the environment and people from the dangers of the environment. He gave an example of people not having access to help for asbestos exposure in the past.  The Chairperson stated emphatically that this area of work is why the Members are here. He said, for these reasons, the Committee will be very strict that the Department meets its targets, but that today will be without conflict.

Briefing by South African Weather Services
Dr Linda Makuleni, SAWS CEO stated that South Africa’s weather service was the oldest in the world, having started 155 years ago. Climate change was a very important issue to SAWS and the Department. She noted that SAWS is far more involved and complex than just weather reports; SAWS is able to do research based on its 155 years of data, act, as a regional training center for neighbouring countries, and provide a source of education on climate issues for municipalities and the people. The SAWS mandate includes providing reliable weather, aeronautical, marine, and ambient air quality monitoring and forecast services. The SAWS aims to make this information readily available and understandable for everyone.

Dr Makuleni said South Africa must be aware of, for example, flooding in Mozambique, because it would affect South Africa and the government must have the infrastructure in place to be prepared for such situations. The Department now has this severe weather infrastructure in place, the question now is how to improve disaster management plans. The SAWS has created, for example, a flash flood warning system, in conjunction with the National Disaster Center. In the future, SAWS would also like to include Impact Forecasting. For example, identifying what diseases will livestock be at risk for when heavy rains follow a long drought. The Department is now trying to employ people with experience in agriculture as well as various sciences that the Department needs. The SAWS has developed a programme to help farmers know when to start plowing, etc.

Funding for the SAWS used to be dominated by the government grant for the Department, but is now fifty-fifty between commercial and government funding.

The SAWS provided services to aviation including weather reports and carbon emission monitoring, which are paid for through commercial tariffs. She noted that a UN body oversees South African skies. The SAWS is also responsible for investigating accidents caused by weather, in conjunction with the DoT. The SAWS monitors all national weather stations and the data those stations collect. The SAWS is striving to work with municipalities and provide training and education.

In collecting information from the Southern Ocean, Dr Makuleni noted that this area is the second largest swath of ocean monitored by any weather service, behind the USA. The SAWS is working to digitalise all the information previously collected by the service. Dr Makuleni emphasised South Africa’s role as an international and regional telecommunication hub and the responsibility carried with this. The SAWS was recently identified as a Satellite Center of Excellence. South Africa has a regional training center and a Global Atmospheric Watch center, which is one of three in Africa. South Africa was one of the first in the world to have a Quality Management Center. The SAWS monitors all civil airports and reports on their data to civil aviation; a separate unit within the service handles this monitoring.

The SAWS aimed to target previously disadvantaged individuals with career developments. Employment in the SAWS is currently 67% African and 40% female thanks to bursaries and other programmes. The SAWS has created a book of weather terms and is translating it into various indigenous languages to increase public knowledge.

Goals for the SAWS moving forward included sustainability, cooperation, climate change, and aviation disaster prevention. Dr Makuleni noted that weather knows no boundaries, and that unfortunately much of Africa lacks the infrastructure and institutional capacity to face future challenges and collect climate data. In 2009 at the World Climate Conference, 150 countries adopted a Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS). The GFCS had five main components: User Interface Platform, Climate Services Information, Observation, Modeling & Prediction and Capacity Development.

The SAWS plans for the future in conjunction with the Department by creating plans for various scenarios complete with implementation timelines. The SAWS aims to collaborate closely with the Meteorological Association of South Africa (MASA).Dr Makuleni believed that, through education, within ten to fifteen years people will be able to deal with changing climate and severe weather events. A National Education Plan, which emanates from the National Development Plan, is in place to address the lack of science skills in relevant fields present in the workforce. A conservative estimate of the number of scientists needed found that the Department needs 162 climatologists, 232 meteorologists, and 144 air quality specialists; The Department is currently more than 100 people short in each category. Other skills needed include Oceanography and agro-meteorology.

Dr Makuleni felt that the SAWS has successfully engaged stakeholders, and thus said the SAWS is moving to Phase Two: Resource Mobilisation; Phase Three would be Implementation. The budget proposal for the SAWS going forward is R52 Million in total for one year

In conclusion, Dr Makuleni highlighted the importance of collaboration, funding, and monitoring.

The Chairperson thanked the SAWS for the presentation. He asked that specific details referenced from the presentation be sent to the Committee. He asked exactly what responsibilities all the civil and international organisations have given the SAWS.

Mr S Makhubele (ANC) thanked the Department and asked how the SAWS is working to change the popular view that the only service of the SAWS is giving minimum and maximum daily temperatures? How is infrastructure being improved in our regional neighbours? Is there any educational plan being implemented in other countries? He offered that South Africa should push other countries to share this responsibility.

Mr P Mabilo (ANC) asked for more information on the Regional Training Center operated by the SAWS: what is the actual input and output for various countries? How many of the 54 African countries participate in the global arenas referenced in your presentation? Mr Mabilo asked to what extent private flights interact with the SAWS? How ready are our provinces and districts for disaster scenarios? Is the SAWS involved with monitoring Antarctica? How is the SAWS encouraging University students to consider their specific sciences? How is technology development progressing?

The Chairperson noted that data measured by instruments must be used for something. How do these instruments identify who is to blame for various public health crises caused by weather? When will we apportion this blame? The Chairperson wondered how many people hold the necessary skills in private industry. He thanked and praised the SAWS for keeping the skies safe and the stellar reputation of South African air safety.

Dr Makuleni explained that the SAWS monitors 108 stations, and that the Chairperson is correct that this data must be put to good use. As for private industry, historically these industries did not desire weather services but this paradigm is shifting. She agreed with the Chairperson that the SAWS presented a very conservative estimate of the number of scientists.

Dr Makuleni addressed Mr Mabilo’s enquiry about university students by pointing out that bursaries are being given for BSc Meteorology and also the SAWS is targeting high school students for BSc studies. She thanked the Government for their funding for high performance computing to develop better modeling technology. She reminded the Committee that South Africa was recognised as a Center of Excellence for satellite technology, but also said our satellites can improve. She also listed the Automatic Rain Stations and Information Dissemination as targets for technological improvement. She said at least 50 African countries are in the WMO, but only 33 pay their dues and thus can vote. Only 5 countries have the necessary infrastructure for quality weather services. The AU is very interested in improving this situation, however.

Ms Judy Beaumont: DDG of the DEA explained that air quality has three areas of work: monitoring overall air quality, enforcement of compliance based on monitoring specific emitters, and understanding community health impacts. The SAWS only handles overall ambient air quality, and she asserted that the SAWS must work with other institutions to seea spectrum. 

The Chairperson noted that the Department has not done a study of un-industrialised versus industrialised areas. He also noted that the Department has identified air quality “hotspots” and that the Department has not done sufficient study on these areas. He suggested that the Department partner with Health or Agriculture or someone to acquire the necessary funding in order to help the people.

Mr Mnikeli Ndabambi: GM of Operations for the SAWS addressed Mr Mabilo’s question on private flights by explaining that the SAWS only provides visual information and recommendation to private flights, not instrument information such as pressure. He also said many districts have a disaster plan that the SAWS was involved in providing, but the SAWS has no authority to force a district to have an active plan. The Implementation Forecast System referenced in the presentation also works to identify risky districts. Finally, the huge ocean space the SAWS monitors includes areas near Antarctica, and we also monitor weather there for flights to Antarctica.

Dr Ziyande Mojokweni: GM Corporate Affairs of the SAWS spoke to the SAWS’ efforts to promote itself. She explained that media promotions, print articles and publications, local events with over 1 000 people, and various celebrations have all been used to spread awareness. The SAWS goes to schools and career days, which has helped participation in the bursary programme.

Mr Rowan Nicholls, Board Member of the SAWS, thanked the Chairperson for taking the SAWS seriously and noted that disaster relief in the past, for example with the Cape fire, has been lacking.

The Chairperson noted that the rest of the questions could be answered by mail and moved to the presentation from South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for a brief overview of their contribution to the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Briefing by South African National Biodiversity Institute
Dr Tanya Abrahamse: SANBI CEO thanked the chair and introduced her colleagues. She explained that SANBI’s mission was to educate the public on the importance of biodiversity and to both explore and conserve biodiversity. Approximately 700 people work for the Institute in order to run 11 National Botanical Gardens by the end of the year. South Africa was one of the first countries to have a detailed vegetation map of the country. The SANBI provides the DEA information on protected and invasive species. The SANBI recently acquired a mandate to deliver Long Term Adaptation Scenarios for preserving biodiversity after climate change to DEA.

Dr Abrahamse admitted that, similar the SAWS, the Institute struggles to explain the value of the Institute to the people. The Institute strives to convert raw information on biodiversity into improved management, service delivery, and job creation. In addition, increased understanding can streamline environmental decision making, especially in relation to climate change. The other important role of the Institute is maintaining Botanical Gardens, many of which are home to otherwise extinct plants.

SANBI delivers its mandates through six programmes:
P1: Corporate services
P2: Botanical Gardens management
P3: Biodiversity science improvement
P4: Biodiversity monitoring and reporting
P5: Policy advice
P6: Human capital development

Dr Abrahamse noted that one of the Botanical Gardens recently won an international award “Best Visitor Garden”. She also explained a project done in conjunction with the Chamber of Mines researching mines and another project done on invasive species and how they affect agriculture. She explained that policy advice is not only for Parliament, but that more frequently the SANBI gives guidance to local governments. She highlighted the SANBI’s efforts to bus students to visit the Botanical Gardens as well as work done with teachers and in developing textbooks.

The SANBI addresses the same sustainable development as many national and international stakeholders, especially the DEA. The SANBI has appointed six black Senior Members, and recently gained 35 to 40 young black scientists through the GroenSebenza project. Compliance requirements have been increased in health and safety, use of official languages, expenditure guidelines, and personal information protection.

Kwelera National Botanical Garden, in the Eastern Cape north of East London, and Thohoyandou National Botanical Garden in Limpopo are both very new; the latter has not yet even opened. Limpopo is in dire need of further resources if the Department is to open a new garden: Vhembe National Botanical Garden. The process to open Vhembe by 2017 is underway.

The Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme (FBIP) is a SANBI program where the SANBI directs resources from the NRF to accelerate the dissemination of biodiversity information: what have we got and why is it important?

The SANBI is working to advise the DEA on the protection of the wildlife economy to help licensing be done correctly to prevent illegal hunting, for example. The National Biodiversity Economic Strategy (NBES) is done in conjunction with these efforts.

Dr Abrahamse reminded the Committee that South Africa is a global leader in the collection of this information, but she noted that the technology in this field evolves very quickly and that many of the SANBI’s systems are out of date. For example, some of the Institute’s systems are still in silos and interoperability is highly limited. Thanks to money from the National Treasury, we should be able to keep up with Brazil who has surpassed us in terms of technology.

The SANBI was accredited as South Africa’s Nation Implementing Entity to the Global Adaptation Fund, which addresses climate change. This success will help the SANBI join Global Green Climate Fund, which the SANBI applied for in July 2015 and is a much bigger fund.

With regards to the SANBI’s education efforts, out of 800 ‘pioneers’ 254 have permanent jobs; another 336 have been given employment contracts to bring the total to 590 total jobs. Although this is slightly lower than the benchmark, the SANBI feels that the efforts have been worthwhile.

Dr Abrahamse thanked the Chairperson for the Committee’s time and for the visit to Kirstenbosch.

Ms Nana Magomola: Chairperson of the SANBI Board felt privileged to lead the government board of scientists and experienced members. She said the board has a good understanding of their role and are able to get the information they require without difficulty. She looked forward to further oversight from the Committee.

The Chairperson noted that two members had to leave in order to catch flights and asked for questions.

Mr Mabilo informed Dr Abrahamse that the SANBI is 104 years old. He expressed concern that the Botanical Gardens are only in historically white areas, and certainly not in the townships, which makes them inaccessible to the people. He moved to establish Botanical Gardens in the townships. What is the role of civil society in addressing the invasive species problem? In the Business Day of June, a Biodiversity Planning Forum was mentioned: can you tell us about that? Does the SANBI have the resources it needs to ensure the success of its SIPs in ensuring biodiversity? What is the current state of development of your National Vegetation Map?

The Chairperson asked whether we have looked at the impact on pollution on ecosystems? He also asked that the information the representative spoke about that was not in the presentation be sent to the Committee. He observed that transgressions on biodiversity as well as visits to safaris are predominately done by white men and that understanding is still poor of the economic benefits of biodiversity. The Chairperson requested a presentation on the contribution of the wildlife economy to the GDP, even if those contributors are only white. He also asked how the SANBI contributes to local government. He agreed that we must work to catch up with Brazil. He asked how the Committee can intervene to help with GroenSebenza. He urged the SANBI to sell itself in more political terms so the Committee can better campaign for its funding.

Dr Abrahamse explained that there are not meant to be many National Botanical Gardens; however, local botanical gardens are a separate entity.

The Chairperson asked whether there are any gardens at any level in townships? Dr Abrahamse answered yes. The Chairperson asked whether there are plans to put a National Botanical Garden in a rural township, because the current ones seem to be remnants of apartheid.

Dr Abrahamse explained that the new National Gardens have been chosen with this in mind. Dr Abrahamse strongly agreed that information should be shared and relationships should be strengthened with local gardens.

Dr Abrahamse quickly mentioned one of the SANBI’s civil outreach programmes being an app that allows users to photograph plants and then gain information on them. She also pointed out that much bird data comes from citizens.

Dr Abrahamse explained that a Biodiversity Planning Forum has been going for 10 years that brings various municipalities and institutions once a year to discuss advances; these forums help ensure the success of the SANBI’s project. One example of the success of these Forums is the standardisation of maps used by scientists in this field. The DEA has ultimate control over which projects are undertaken, and a troika including the Council of Geoscientists, the CSIR and the SANBI provide the Minister evidence and scientific information so he or she can make decisions.

As to the impact on pollution, Dr Abrahamse gave an example of a national focus on wetlands: the SANBI made a book on the state of South African rivers in 2013. Other example is data collected on land degradation; both examples have been impacted by pollution. With the Umgeni River Project in the Drakensberg, the SANBI focused on how to solve the problem, whether it be better farming practices, better housing materials, etc.

Ms Skumza Mancotywa: Acting DDG of the DEA felt that there used to be a lack of a future vision for the development of gardens. She agreed that these gardens must be developed in rural areas and townships. She admitted that the main focus of the Institute has been conservation, and are thus wanting in social and economic aspects. The Institute is currently analysing this issue. The developing Biodiversity Strategy includes tourism and other areas.

The Chairperson requested that a presentation on Biodiversity Economics be given to the Committee.

Ms Mancotywa agreed that such a presentation is almost ready, and that they will bring all the necessary stakeholders.

Mr Moeketsi Khoahli: CCO of the SANBI explained that the Institute just did a nationwide audit to assess occupational health and safety. Education is underway on fire drills, chemical safety and disposals, and the establishment of safety standards for the gardens. The Institute has also worked with the SAWS to locate Lightning Hazard zones. Mr Khoahli expressed concern about invasive species and supported the programmes addressing this issue.

Ms Beaumont explained that invasive species are driven by climate change because that increased CO2 helps some plants while damaging indigenous grasslands.

The Chairperson apologised for the lack of time. He observed that no one is dip-sticking the impact of pollution on people rather than ecosystems. He said we must identify the people who are impacted by pollution and what the financial impact on these people is. He noted that the government is constitutionally obligated to protect the people from the environment. He hoped that biodiversity will help us develop herbs into pharmaceutical drugs. The Chairperson thanked all in attendance.

The meeting was adjourned.


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