AECOM is ranked #1 in Engineering News Record’s (ENR’s) 2020 Top 200 Environmental Firms. This is the fifth year in a row that AECOM has topped the global analysis. “Our team is passionate about the environment as well as sustainable development, and awards such as these validate our view of and approach to both,” comments Elisabeth Nortje (Pri.Sci.Nat.), Market Sector Lead – Environment, Africa.
The AECOM environmental team in Africa consists of a group of dedicated environmental scientists, social scientists and climate-change advisors. It provides services to both internal and external clients; addressing the need for environmental and social impact assessments to meet international funder requirements; waste, water and air emissions licences; compliance monitoring and auditing; sustainability and climate change assessments; and stakeholder engagement, integrated environmental planning and environmental advisory services throughout South Africa, Africa and the Middle East.
Africa’s environmental sector
“Our focus is on integrating the needs of the biophysical and socio-economic environments with the vision of our clients” notes Nortje. “Our services are well-integrated within the company structure. As a result of the multi-faceted nature of our discipline; we are well-positioned to provide guidance and input to the various business units and market sectors.”
Similarly, it engages with clients across various sectors, from power to transportation and water infrastructure to agriculture, mining and master-planning. “For us, it is fundamental that the environment is considered an integral component of project execution. From planning and design through to construction, operation and decommissioning,” stresses Nortje.
“Environmental issues or challenges in South Africa are a factor of both our history and our current developmental needs. As a nation and a continent, we face challenges related to food security, power generation, the supply of clean water, the legacy of pollution, infrastructure maintenance and job creation.
Climate change in Africa
“Addressing any of these will impact our environment. Added to this is the dimension of climate change; which will drive the rate of change and increase the impact on especially our vulnerable communities,” points out Nortje. “Climate change and carbon tax should be on everybody’s radar. South Africa’s National Climate Change Bill is expected to be passed into law in the near future.”
Latest environmental impact developments
In terms of the latest developments; on 9 September the Minister of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs; Barbara Creecy published directions under the Disaster Management Act relating to environmental permits and licences.
The 21 July 2020 landmark decision by the Water Tribunal; confirms that water licensing authorities must consider the impacts of climate change. It evaluates whether or not to grant water-use licences to coal-fired power stations. The deadline for paying carbon tax, implemented on 1 June 2019, ends 31 October 2020.
Looking at the latest trends; Nortje highlights that digital technology has the potential to actively engage South African citizens; particularly the youth, with their surroundings by making environmental information accessible on social media. If done correctly, it becomes a conversation tool between scientists and citizens that empowers them to render sustainable development tangible.
Smart software with content data
Software-enabled management of spatial data is also becoming increasingly important; incorporating information from satellite images; databases from government authorities as well as NGOs; or even drone footage and information from citizen scientists to identify areas of potential sensitivity.
“It is imperative that we build polyvocality into sourcing our spatial information; to bring the environmental assessment process into the open. It will allow interested citizens to investigate and understand the environmental impacts of projects that affect them and; in turn, to understand the environmental footprint and cost of their daily lives,” elaborates Nortje.
The use of digital technology in community and stakeholder engagement is as important as the management of spatial data. Hence the environmental team always tries to innovate in terms of engaging people on projects. AECOM’s Digital NEPA Tool is the first of its kind. It provides an interactive, web-based environmental impact statement for stakeholders.
“This is another example of how the collective effort of the larger team gives us a leading edge. The tool will allow us to hold virtual public meetings and engage with stakeholders across large geographic areas. Assisting those who cannot attend in-person meetings due to social distancing measures related to the coronavirus outbreak,” points out Nortje.
“We recognise the challenges faced in terms of high-speed internet access; access to IT infrastructure and expertise or something as elementary as access to electricity. Despite this, our aim must be to build the mechanisms and processes that ensure broad input into environmental governance.”
Integrated environmental management
In terms of Integrated Environmental Management, digital technology supports best practice through modern software; remote-sensing capability and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping. It can transform the view of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) from a snapshot to a more robust assessment. It considers change over time in conjunction with any planned new activity.
“When used effectively; these technologies can add value to the entire lifecycle of a project; from planning to impact assessment and authorisation and finally compliance,” adds Nortje. The technological opportunities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the knowledge systems; create the foundation of a liveable future for the current and next generation of South Africans.