Once described as a forgotten industrial Mecca, the daily struggle to survive in Cape Town means residents have to worry about much more than the country’s goals to reduce climate-disrupting carbon pollution. The unemployment rate per the 2011 census indicated an unemployment rate of 26.6% and only 32% of residents 20 years or older had completed high school (matric) or a form of higher education. This is why it doesn’t come as a surprise that not many locals are thrilled about the solar plant, as they feel there are more pressing matters at hand that take precedence over net-zero.
Voices from Atlantis
A resident, Llewellyn L, 37, walked across the site when approached about what he understands net zero to mean. He was hurrying along to one of the many odd jobs he said he does around Atlantis to earn some money. He is semi-employed when work becomes available but for the most part he is not formally employed. He is a past participant in a skills program from the COCT in 2011, and expressed disdain for city programs. He never received his completion certificate along with many others and feels ‘it’s about who you know not what you know’ to get employed in Atlantis.
As a resident of a local informal settlement in Atlantis, he said communication from the local government is sparse. He said he has only ever seen the site as a bushy area and used it as a thoroughfare to get to town.
He expressed in his mother tongue:
“Ek wiet wat solar panels is, maar ek wietie van ‘n gebou nie. Ek het nog nooit gehoor van dit nie tot vandag." (I know what solar panels are, but I don’t know about the solar plant. I have never heard about this plant until today).
He explained that we need to conserve more water and be mindful of litter, but that net zero is something he had never heard of. Perhaps he would have shown more interest in this project had the COCT consulted locals regarding their plans.
The COCT has promised the solar plant will have significant economic benefits for the community of Atlantis. According to the 2019 Ikamva case study, Atlantis has succumbed to high levels of unemployment through the years. The unemployment rate per the 2011 census indicated an unemployment rate of 26.6% and only 32% of residents 20 years or older had completed high school (matric) or a form of higher education. This is why it doesn’t come as a surprise that not many locals are thrilled about the solar plant, as they feel there are more pressing matters at hand that take precedence over net zero.
Not far from the site we spoke to another Atlantis resident, Thabo Ndom, who lives in a new settlement called Covid. Ndom had been crossing the road with a bucket of water on his way to his home when we encountered him. The area around the Covid settlement had many illegal electrical connections hanging from the streetlights on Chris Hani Road in Atlantis. The bucket of water is one of many he carries on any given day to make sure he and his family have enough access to clean water. He gets it from a communal municipal tap in the road. The Witsand primary school is close by and is the school to many of the settlement’s children.
“It’s difficult for our kids. They can only use the toilets at school, or they go into the bushes. It is not safe for anyone. Electricity is a problem, but we need toilets and running water. I can’t be worried about solar things. I didn’t know about this solar plant. Usually, ward councilors tell us about new projects, but we know nothing," he said.
He said that he too has a limited understanding of what net zero means, and that his most important concern is access to clean water and sanitation in the area. Again, the oversight on the COCT’s part neglected to inform and include locals. Perhaps they could have alleviated the unemployment problem by employing locals to assist in water and sanitation projects — kill three issues with one project or however the saying goes.
Local ward councilor Anastatia Davids said the Atlantis Special Economic Zone (ASEZ) invited the community to attend presentations about building the solar plant. However, the land was already made available by the city. In essence there was no public participation about the solar plant development according to Davids. Once the meeting occurred and a few people saw the newspaper clipping and they were very disgruntled about not knowing anything, Davids said.
Solar plant versus Indigenous plants
The site of the solar plant is also a very rich area of Cape Fynbos (endangered Indigenous vegetation) that has been signed off to be cleared for the construction of the plant.
The Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning granted environmental authorization for the construction of the Atlantis PV plant in April 2022. The plant’s construction will result in the clearance of more than one hectare of Indigenous vegetation. This includes the clearance of more than 300m² of critically endangered Atlantis Sand Fynbos and endangered Cape Flats Dune Strandveld. The authorization notice states the loss of Indigenous vegetation will be mitigated by an offsite biodiversity offset.
This means compensating for vegetation that will be cleared because of the proposed development. The city has purchased properties on the urban edge and to the east of Atlantis. This is for the loss of terrestrial vegetation that will occur, said councilor Beverley Van Reenen, the city’s mayoral committee member for energy.
Zoleka Maphanga, a horticulturist in the Faculty of Natural Science at the University of the Western Cape, said offsets are a common strategy used in development projects to compensate for the ecological impact and biodiversity losses. The city is aiming to preserve natural habitats. There is also the possibility of negative consequences for local ecosystems and biodiversity.
“Indigenous vegetation is indeed integral in removing harmful gases, such as carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere through a process called carbon sequestration. Plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and store it in their tissues, effectively reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Preserving or restoring indigenous vegetation can play a vital role in mitigating climate change and maintaining ecosystem health. By ensuring the preservation of vegetation outside of Atlantis, the city is likely aiming to maintain or enhance the capacity of the local environment to remove harmful gases, promote biodiversity, and provide ecosystem services,” Maphanga said.
The concept of biodiversity offsets is widely used as a mitigation measure in development projects, to minimize environmental impacts. Further investigation into the offset activities is needed along with wider consultation. This includes extensive dialogue with local residents, and more research on offset projects.
Maphanga concluded that while balancing developmental and environmental effects, factors like transparency and effective mitigation methods are needed to reduce adverse effects on native plants and larger ecosystems.
This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in The Daily Vox on 4 July 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: The Witsand Information Settlement in Atlantis / Credit: Lynn Fester.