Environmental Conflicts in the South Durban Basin: Political Ecology

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Political ecology approaches to vulnerability emerged in response to risk-hazard assessment to climate impacts and disasters. Political ecology of risks, hazards and, disasters based on the study of the South Durban Basin. Political ecology risk and hazard insists upon appraising inequalities, marginalization and unequal distribution of environmental costs and benefits. The history of South Africa holds the ropes on how the South Durban Basin came in to form. What is the South Durban Basin?

It is cited that the South Durban area is located approximately south east of the eThekwini Municipality in the kwaZulu Natal province. It is bound to the east by the Indian Ocean. And that South Durban is the industrial hub of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal Province. It is home to one of the two biggest oil refineries in South Africa. South Durban has the largest concentration of petrochemical industries in the country, and it refines approximately 60 percent of South Africa’s petroleum. Apart from being overwhelmed with petrochemical companies, the South Durban industrial basin is also home to waste water treatment works, numerous toxic waste landfill sites, an airport, a paper manufacturing plant and a multitude of chemical process industries. In total, the South Durban area contains over 120 industries, including the two oil refineries. This petrochemical basin has been dubbed the Durban poison which disproportionately overburdens low-income communities with environmental stress (pollution) and public health costs.

There are some 200 000 people living in the suburbs of the Bluff (including Bayhead and Island View), Clairwood, Jacobs, Mobeni, Wentworth, Merebank, Merewent, Prospecton, Isipingo, and Lamontville, extending to Athlone Park and Amanzimtoti in the south. Some of the non-white population lived in the area before the arrival of industry, with some trading as market gardeners, while others were settled into small retirement homes in the Merewent area. These communities still remember the forests separating their houses from what was later to become the Engen refinery. However, many were later (forcibly) settled in suburbs bordering the industrial areas as a result of past racial discriminatory policies by the (then) ruling government, with the backing of the Group Areas Act of 1950. This policy placed communities on the doorstep of industry so that the workforce was close to the workplace.

According to Nirajan, the South Durban Basin community's plight against exposure to hazardous environment mainly perpetrated by the petrochemical industries and one hundred and forty seven other potentially hazardous industries. The residential areas of South Durban Basin suffer very high levels of air, ground and water pollution. Pollution has been a pressing concern for local communities in South Durban Basin for decades. From the 1950s the area has been the site of simultaneous industrial development and forced relocation of African, Indian and Coloured communities under the Group Areas Act. This has become an environmental hazard a risk to the people who are living in the regions namely Bluff, Clairwood, Isipingo, Merebank, Umlazi and Wenthworth. Have been suffering for many scores under these bad and unhealthy conditions. Issues such as drug abuse, lack of recreation for young people; high levels of unemployment; pollution and housing are factors that affect the quality of life of those who live in the area.

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For many urban political ecologists, “metabolism” provides a key metaphor for conceptualizing socio‐ecological processes integral to uneven development. Meaning that more attention is paid to the core at the cost of the people living in the periphery. Looking at the Durban basin inequalities a visible due the setting of the place, the is the core and periphery and most issues don’t affect the core as much as they affect the periphery. Apartheid urban planning ensured that these three racial groups lived apart (segregated) while maintaining separate residential development for white communities.

The marginalization construct is applicable in some contexts, human–environment relations are more complex than this frame implies. This is suggested by findings from studies of spatial relationships between indicators of social marginality and environmental hazards, which contradict the critical hazards postulate that the least powerful people inhabit the most hazardous places e.g. Mobeni, Wentworth, Clairwood etc. these places are mostly located in the south Durban basin. The peripheral places that are disadvantaged living in the most dangerous and unhealthy places. Pointing out “the importance of underlying inequalities in human access to resources (both locally and globally) – rather than the geographies of physical forces – in shaping where and who natural disaster strikes'. Political ecology of risk and hazard shows that the marginals are affected differently by risk thus risk is distributed unevenly leads to disaster.

Political ecology of risk and hazard cites evidence of environmental injustices (inequalities) in the realm of distribution specifically the inequitable share of environmental ills. It can be realised that some people suffer at the benefit of others, these people are not full on concerned unless the is more cost than benefit. In the Durban basin for example studies show that people living in the industrial region are suffering from the pollution coming from the factories. Hewitt and Wisner emphasizes on social inequalities as influence on people’s hazard exposure and their differential capabilities for coping with disaster. Different places get different treatment and efficiency. The government or state does not work with same pace in every place to solve an issue. In the south Durban basin people have been suffering under that dangerous air pollutants for a long time, an issue which could have been dealt with in time when freedom was given to the people but it has taken forever to come up with solutions. If it have been an issue in the core it have been dealt with in a flash. The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance is fighting for environmental justice in post-apartheid South Africa. According to Sven Bobby Peek, a South African environmental justice activist, Communities must not relent in their struggle against environmental injustices and racism and should not let obstacles of industrial and state power foil their quest for the ideal environment Pictorial Depiction of Petrochemical pollution in Durban.

Power has been conceptualized as a social relation built on the asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks and locate power in the interactions among, and the processes that constitute, people, places, and resources. Politics, then, are found in the practices and mechanisms through which such power is circulated. Environmental justice struggles in contemporary South Africa have their foundation in struggles against the legacy of apartheid politics and spatial planning discourse and practice. Analysis of post-apartheid South Africa requires framing issues within a historical context; taking into account a painful history that left deep social, economic, political, and ecological (environmental) scars. It is through recognizing the impact of apartheid that one is be able to unpack contemporary environmental justice struggles and how they are closely tied to socio-political injustice. Those scars are visible in the South Durban Industrial basin. Measures have been established to tackle the environmental hazard of pollution.

The government has implemented the multi point plan to help solve the environmental hazard and risk in the Durban basin area and other environmental prevention and awareness programmes. According to Chetty The Multi-point Plan was devised to address air pollution problems in the South Durban Basin area, which falls within the eThekwini Municipality. The MPP has resulted in the development of a sophisticated local air quality monitoring system, information from which is being used to develop a comprehensive AQMP. Emission reduction interventions are already resulting in some positive air quality impacts, e.g. decreased ambient SO2 concentrations, decrease in number of SO2 guideline exceedances. Experiences from this project will be invaluable in testing and informing the development of the required Air Quality Management Planning Implementation Manual.

Bolwana “The fight for fresh air in the South Durban Basin has been taken to new levels, with eleven new air quality monitoring stations being established in the area. They are part of a multi-point plan for the South Durban Basin, an air pollution monitoring network established by the eThekwini municipality and national Minister of Environmental and Tourism, Valli Moosa.

The hazardous situation in the South Durban Basin’s environmental injustice can be put together with environmental racism which is linked to apartheid spatial planning that essentially shifted the cost of petrochemical industries to poor black communities. Power and politics also come into play when it comes to the distribution of environmental costs and benefits due to the marginality and socio economic inequalities.


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