The Role of Space-based Solutions in South Africa’s Approved National Spatial Framework

Launch of South Africa Space Weather Station .Source: SABC News

On February 1 2023, South Africa released her Approved National Spatial Development Framework, a comprehensive and strategic plan for land use and natural resource management. In addition, the framework is the first of its kind in the country, rooted in achieving the constitutional transformation goal. The approved final document describes an implementation strategy to execute the framework’s goals using South Africa’s past to improve its future.

This article seeks to highlight how space technologies and their derived solutions can aid the implementation of the national spatial framework document by critically assessing the;

  1. Natural Resource Limits and Imperatives, and
  2. Climate Change Implications: Regional Adaptation and Mitigation.
Natural Resource Limits and Imperatives 

The framework recognises that South Africa is a water-scarce country where dwindling water security is reflected through severely degraded water catchments, polluted groundwater sources, mining and commercial agricultural production, and air pollution. It further reiterates the importance of employing technology to supplement the country’s water supply, reduce the usage of the available resources and manage the ocean economy better. Furthermore, South Africa already has a comprehensive legal framework for water resource management and an Earth observation strategy. However, this legal framework covers the position of governments, industries and civil society.

South Africa is a mineral-resources-rich country with iron ore, manganese, chromium, copper, uranium, silver, beryllium, titanium, diamonds and gold reserves. Mining forms part of the primary sector of the economy. However, the nature of mining towns in South Africa is they were developed according to the apartheid spatial development framework. This meant the labour force had to live in unplanned settlements, which sprang up ad hoc. 

Similarly, the mining industry operated without restraint and compromised the ecology and health of mining workers and local communities. The problem resulted from the government’s bias which led to issuing unregulated mining licences based on political favouritism. The right to a clean environment is constitutionally guaranteed but compromised by mining activities.

According to Human Rights Watch, South Africa has abandoned over 6,000 mines, where approximately 2,322 have been identified as high risk. Also, between November 2007 and February 2008, thousands of metric tons of tailings pond material spilt over from Blyvooruitzicht four times, some of the waste washing into a nearby residential area. Similarly, according to the South African Chamber of Mines, in 2013, mining companies produced 562,000 times as much waste as gold.

The damage done by past and ongoing mining activities can be summarised as follows;

  • Ignition of fires can burn for decades leading to the release of fly ash and smoke laden with toxic gases and chemicals.
  • Strip mining causes dust and noise pollution when removing topsoil with heavy machinery. Strip mining (also known as open-cast or surface mining) involves scraping away earth and rocks to get to coal buried near the surface. Unfortunately, the removal of topsoil also leads to soil erosion.
  • Mining waste leads to the disfiguration of river channels and the chemical contamination of groundwater.
  • Contamination and alteration of soil profiles and loss of biodiversity.
Mineral and industries map. Source: Planetware

The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002 states that mining companies must ensure minimal environmental damage and limit the need for and extent of mine closure. Moreover, there should be planning for rehabilitation before the onset of operations so that it would be policed and monitored throughout the mining operations. This document provides for the sustainable development of the country’s mineral and petroleum resources. However, it requires adherence to relevant safety, health and environmental standards and the rehabilitation of mines after ceasing mining activities.

South Africa could benefit from satellite technology, such as Exosphere satellite-based mineral exploration system in Ghana. The technology utilises remote sensing map analysis technology with the Ambient Noise Topography system. The benefit of this technology is that it tests the viability of a site before proceeding to do geophysical work on it. This would minimise accidental land degradation. 

Moreover, these are examples of satellite-enabled activities in the mining industry:

  • Site and logistic management – refer to GNSS-based technologies to improve security throughout the mining process. The mining operation is enhanced by tracking mining equipment and materials. This also improves response time in the case of accidents.
  • Weather forecasting – uses EO technologies to help plan day-to-day tasks wisely. For example, this would assist in the design of mines in an effective way to avoid disasters such as the collapse of a mine due to heavy rains. This would ensure that resources are not wasted and are better utilised in places less prone to disaster.
  • Data communication transmission – is essential because most mines are located in remote areas and are not covered by terrestrial communications meaning that mining companies would be completely isolated if satellite communications did not exist.
  • Environmental monitoring activities – take place after the closure of mines, mainly to comply with government environmental regulations and to prevent natural disasters.
Climate Change Implications: Regional Adaptation and Mitigation

The framework reports that temperatures are set to increase by 1 to 4 degrees, whereas warm days are set to increase. In addition, flash flooding and other hazardous climate change implications are expected.

South Africa is experiencing flooding due to La Nina for the third consecutive time, and this has only been seen twice since 1950. La Nina is a global weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean and brings above-average rainfall. La Nina was responsible for the flooding events in Durban in 2022 that led to the loss of 448 lives. As a result, the President of South Africa, Ramaphosa, declared a national state of disaster in February 2023 to enable an intensive response to widespread flooding that affected 7 out of 9 provinces in the country. The Co-operative Governance Department confirmed on the 14th of February that 12 people had lost their lives, four from Mpumalanga, three in Eastern Cape, four in Kwazulu Natal and one in Gauteng.

Rapid urbanisation and lack of suitable land in the right places lead to inadequate housing. People who live in informal settlements face the damaging effects of changing weather patterns as their homes are built in risky and environmentally sensitive areas. The city’s geographic system shows that some of the vacant land that informal settlements are on falls under 50-100 year flood lines in the case of Ethekwini. Floodlines demarcate areas with the potential of flooding in 50 to 100 years. A quarter of the country’s population resides in slums, according to World Bank Data. 

Improving Data Access to Mitigate the Effect of Climate Change 

The South Africa Space Weather Centre is one of the essential tools at the nation’s disposal that can make predictions of space weather on a 24/7 basis to turn the tide by monitoring and mitigating the effects of climate change. The Centre is one of five recognised by the International Civil Aviation Organisation developed by the South African Space Agency (SANSA) under the department of Science and Innovation.

Furthermore, the Centre provides early warning forecasts to protect the national power grid and communications and navigation systems from the harmful effects of solar systems. The Space Weather Station has assisted key state organs in the following projects;

  • Provided satellite imagery to the National Disaster Management Centre and the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs during the recent floods in KZN.
  • Assisted in the Jagersfontein mine waste dam collapse.
  • Assists with the national integrated water information system, drought station information, and the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation.

To help those in disaster-prone areas, SANSA partners with other relevant institutions to complement the work of key state organs and build the necessary human resource to incorporate the raw data to produce decision-ready data. 

Consequently, the goal of these capacity-building initiatives will culminate in building the proper infrastructures to develop the following:

  • Formal flood systems and evacuation programmes

In this regard, satellite data can monitor weather patterns and water levels in rivers and reservoirs. In addition, real-time data may be used to track the movement of flood water, aiding emergency services in evacuating flood victims. For example, the South African Space Agency (SANSA) Earth Observation Technology monitors freshwater bodies in real time and supplies the information to the Department of Water and Sanitation and other relevant authorities. 

  • Land use controls in flood-prone areas

In this case, monitoring land changes over time through satellite imagery and remote sensing may be used to monitor urban areas, which helps city planners and policy decision-makers to make informed decisions about land use. Additionally, satellite imagery and remote sensing may identify regions with unauthorised development. The information will then be used to enforce land use restrictions. Finally, the government will have to ensure that the people are evacuated to where they feel safe enough not to return to living in flood-prone areas because they simply cannot afford to live anywhere else.

  • Educating people about the risks of living in low-lying areas

The President is empowered by the National Disaster Act, which permits bypassing restrictions under current law for procuring goods and services in disaster management. In the Western Cape, climate change is projected to lead to higher average annual temperatures, higher maximum temperatures, more hot days and more heat waves, and higher minimum temperatures. Furthermore, it will also result in fewer cold days and frost days, reduced average rainfall in the Western Cape, rising sea levels, increasing fire risks and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including droughts, floods and storm surges. 

Incorporating Satellite Data for Climate Resilience 

The framework suggests mitigating climate change by making older equipment more energy efficient and changing management practices and consumer behaviour to reduce greenhouse gases. Here are some instances of the nation incorporating satellite solutions to aid its climate resilience programme. 

Between 2007 and 2012, South Africa was part of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Region Climate Change Programme. However, in early 2009, the programme developed platforms, tools, datasets, maps and publications for addressing climate change resilience in the region. This programme integrated climate concerns into South Africa’s national sector plans.

These concerns led to a climate policy being implemented by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment between 2017 and 2022. The policy supported by GIZ and commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV)​​​​​​​ ensured that South Africa could develop its national policy on climate change further and implement it consistently while leading and supporting its role in international climate negotiations. Specifically, the policy includes mitigation, adaptation, monitoring and evaluation. 

Furthermore, the German organisations – Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) have partnered with the South African government to develop active climate change mitigation programmes in the country, including off-grid solar systems, solar water heaters, non-motorized transport, wind energy centre and renewable energy grid integration.

Similarly, the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) has provided technical assistance to the Development Bank in South Africa on climate change research and operational processes. This supported the Central Energy Fund in its new projects.

Investing in Renewable Energy Resources 

The national spatial framework aims to use renewable energy sources to mitigate climate change., which is in tandem with the United Nations SDG 7, seeking to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for humankind.

Moreover, the country has a national state of disaster over load shedding. The causes of load-shedding come from the country’s failure to build new power stations to keep up with economic growth and replace old ones. Furthermore, inadequate geological surveys are also part of the causes of load-shedding. However, these are the upcoming renewable energy projects that South Africa will be implementing, including the ACWA Power project and the Scatec project. The country will be injecting USD 8.5 billion into renewable energy projects. 

Here’s how satellite technologies can help to maximise renewable energy production.

  • Earth observation technologies may provide parameters in solar irradiance, wind speed, precipitation, climate conditions and geothermal data. Moreover, many satellite products complement other information sources to give a complete picture of the global energy system. Satellite data may be used in planning and operating renewable energy projects, tracking changing energy access and use patterns, monitoring environmental impacts and verifying the effectiveness of emission reduction efforts.
  • Hydro-power: satellite data may be used in water resource mapping when planning projects, monitoring reservoir size as well as evaluating the environmental impacts of rerouting and damming water. This is essential in managing future water supply. Landsat and Terra satellites have been utilised in collecting ecological and climate data for several years. Moreover, South Africa incorporates satellite data that provide real-time data like NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP).

The South African national spatial framework is a progressive tool that will reach its peak effectiveness if the nation leverages all the technological tools at its disposal to achieve its goals.



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