Two articles were written by Steven Coan in The Witness which provide much more clarity and detail.
Sani Pass road tarring goes ahead
The DoT first proposed that the Sani Pass road be tarred all the way to the 2 865-metre high summit of the pass in 2005. Phase one of the project, involving the first 14 km of road, over relatively flat terrain, was quickly approved and work began in 2006. It took six years to complete and cost R200 million.
In 2007, an environmental impact assessment (EIA) process commenced for phase two — the 19 km section to the summit. A scoping report proposed six alternatives, ranging from “doing nothing” to driving a tunnel through the top of the mountain. The KZN DoT’s preferred option was alternative five: a tarred hard surface, but no tunnel.
Following the release of the draft EIA in 2011 most of the specialist studies recommended alternative three, which called for a gravel surface together with improved road drainage.
In the final report submitted to the DEA, KZN DóT recommended the hard surface go ahead.
However, the DEA opted for alternative three and accordingly issued an environmental authorisation to that effect on July 2.
Sani gravel ‘is better’
The subsequent appeal against this decision by the KZN DoT and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife was opposed by the Southern Drakensberg Community Tourism Organisation (SDCTO) and the Sani Wildlife branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa).
On May 15 the DEA overturned its own decision and ruled that the tarring option go ahead.
According to Mchunu, the KZN DoT’s appeal was based on the importance of meeting commitments of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the governments of Lesotho and South Africa in 2005 to improve commercial, social and economic opportunities between the two countries through increased accessibility between the two countries. “From an environmental perspective, it makes economic sense to upgrade the road from gravel to tar as gravel roads require regular maintenance every two years,” said Mchunu. “Furthermore, retaining the road in its gravel state will actually negatively impact the surrounding environment.”
The initial decision by the DEA was hailed by the Sani Wildlife branch of Wessa as a vindication of the EIA process. It said its reversal was “devasting news”.
In a statement issued by Russel Suchet on behalf of Sani Wildlife branch of Wessa, representing the local communities, (including the SDCTO and community tourism operators in eastern Lesotho) he said the “vast majority of these communities believed that all the specialist reports commissioned as part of the comprehensive EIA process over the past six years had shown clearly that a hard surface upgrade of Sani Pass would indeed rob our area of one of its major tourist attractions, thereby seriously damaging the tourism industry on both sides of the border”.
In the statement, Suchet said the minister had “advanced no compelling reasons as to why she has altered the well-thought out decision her own department issued last year”.