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The Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme (IPSS) is being constructed to meet the increasing demand for electricity in South Africa and the requirement to increase South Africa’s peaking electricity generating capacity. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) report was finalised and submitted in 1999.  After a protracted period of appeals, legal challenges and a hearing in the High Court, a positive Record of Decision was upheld in 2004.
The Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme is situated approximately 25 kilometres north-east of Van Reenen, straddling the escarpment of the Low Berg on the boundary of the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. The upper reservoir is on a tributary of the Wilge River, which flows into the Vaal River and the lower reservoir is on the headwaters of the Klip River, a tributary of the Tugela River. The site is on the continental watershed between the Orange River, flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, and the Tugela River catchments, flowing into the Indian Ocean.
Dr Barry Taylor was contracted by Middelpunt Wetland Trust to search for new South African sites for the White-winged Flufftail. Prior to the completion of the Ingula EIA process he confirmed the presence of this critically endangered bird species, occurring in small numbers in the wetlands which lie on the farms Bedford and Chatsworth. This discovery led some NGOs to call for the scrapping of the plans to build the power plant in this area. However, closer investigation showed that the habitat occupied by the flufftails, and by a number of other important species such as the Wattled and Grey Crowned Cranes, would not be affected by the building or presence of the dam.
Eskom then entered into negotiations with the opposing NGOs, BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust, and it quickly became clear to everyone that this particular habitat would not be destroyed. The environment as a whole would stand to gain more if Eskom and the NGOs were to work together on the environmental aspects of the project. Eskom, BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust thus proposed to form a formal Partnership if the project received the required authorisation and was implemented.
The Ingula Partnership was formed between Eskom, BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust in 2004, and a steering committee established to ensure that the objectives of the partnership are achieved. These objectives included ensuring that the long-term integrity of the conservation area is improved through appropriate decisions and management practices. The Steering Committee is made up of four senior management representatives from Eskom, two BirdLife South Africa representatives and two representatives from Middelpunt Wetland Trust. The meetings are also attended by relevant staff from Generation’s Environmental Management department, stakeholder management and communications, construction representatives and other participants as required for particular aspects of the project.
The Steering Committee also established the Ingula Advisory Committee: Conservation (IACC), to be more closely involved with some of the day-to-day activities on the site. The IACC consists of Eskom and BirdLife staff, representation from the Steering Committee and various local, provincial and national government departments and from conservation NGOs. Local farmers associations also participate. The IACC meets quarterly and feeds back into the Partnership Steering Committee. This facilitates transparency, further discussion and input of advice and recommendations to the Partnership.
The RoD led to the required purchase of a number of farms in the area surrounding the two storage dams and these are managed by Eskom as a conservation area. The upper dam of the project is built near several important high-altitude wetlands. The majority of the conserved area occurs in the vicinity of these wetlands. The ‘Ingula land’ consists of 9 585 hectares of former agricultural land, scarps, rocky outcrops and wetlands. The primary aim of its management is to ensure that construction on a small portion of this area takes place with due consideration to conservation issues, and that the integrity of the natural environment of the larger area is enhanced and protected.
Eskom’s responsible management of the greater wetland area, together with mitigation measures to compensate for any environmental damage, has resulted in better protection of the Bedford Chatsworth Wetland. It has also created the opportunity to monitor and protect other important marshes in the eastern Free State region. However, prior to initiation of the Ingula project, much of the land in the area of undertaking was degraded and in poor condition due to decades of poor farming practices. Erosion threatened the structure of the marsh further downstream of the Ingula project, and the Free State Department of Tourism, Environment and Economic Affairs spent close to R1,3 million conducting wetland protection measures in that particular area. There is still a significant amount of work to be done on erosion control and wetland restoration in the Ingula conservation area. The continued erosion and degradation of the area has been stopped by the introduction of various initiatives. In the longer term these initiatives will bear far greater fruit of improved biodiversity and long-term protection.
A comprehensive conservation plan is being implemented, which includes the probable declaration of the area as a formal nature reserve and the wetland as a Ramsar site. Significant achievements have been made to date, including the initiation of the alien vegetation eradication programme, the development of an erosion rehabilitation plan and the completion of most of the baseline studies. Thus far, 242 bird species have been identified on site, three of which are ranked in the five most critically endangered bird species in South Africa (Rudd’s Lark, Wattled Crane and White-winged Flufftail).