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Environmental Health and Safety

What is in this guide?

This guide provides government policy on environmental health and safety. It has the following sections:

  1. Why is it important to protect our environment?
  2. What is sustainable development?
  3. What can councils and communities do to promote sustainable development?
  4. Government framework and responsibilities for environmental management
  5. How can development workers assist in maintaining environmental health and safety

    1. Why is it important to protect our environment?

    Our new Constitution says that everyone has the right to a safe and healthy environment.

    The quality of our environment affects all of us no matter where we live. The environment is our home. If it is not healthy, we will not be healthy either. When people abuse the environment, this affects us all. If water is polluted, if the air is full of smoke and chemicals, if food contains poisons, people (and plants and animals) get sick.

    All people also have a responsibility to protect and use the environment in a way that will protect it for us, our children, and our grandchildren.

    Many people do not understand why we need to worry about the environment. They think people's needs and environmental needs cannot both be looked after, and that people are more important than the environment. They say that our major aim must be creating economic growth and jobs, and that the green (environmental) agenda must take second place. Some people feel hurt or insulted when others show concern over endangered species like rhinos when children do not have enough to eat.

    But, the environment is really the whole planet on which we live. Everything (winds, trees, animals, insects, people, etc) forms part of the living system of earth. For example, trees are important because they make oxygen which helps us breathe. If too many trees are cut down for firewood or furniture this reduces the amount of oxygen going into the earth's system. Over time, this can have a very bad effect on people and animals. These are some examples of what is happening to the earth because it has been exploited and not protected: weather patterns have changed, there are more droughts and more floods, the temperature is rising and most important, the ozone layer that should protect us from the dangerous rays of the sun has been damaged and does not work as effectively as it did before.

    So, it is important to protect the environment from being exploited and it is the reason why people now talk about the term sustainable development.

    1. What is sustainable development?

    Sustainable development is using the worlds resources for development in a way that ensures that future generations can do the same. This means that resources can be used indefinitely because the type of development balances the needs of humans, with the needs of the environment, in a manner that does not do excessive harm to the environment. For example, a sustainable forestry industry would mean not cutting down all the trees at the same time so that there are no trees left. It means cutting down some of the trees, which people may use for firewood and also planting new trees to replace those harvested, so that there will be trees in the years ahead.

    The international importance of sustainable development was officially recognised by the world community at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The second Earth Summit took place in Gauteng in 2002.  It was called the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in recognition of the need for balance between environmental (or green issues) and human development. 

    Many countries have not yet begun to use the principles of sustainable development properly. These are the reasons why green activists argue for international agreements on cutting down pollution and looking after the wilderness that remains on earth.

    South Africa has signed and ratified certain important international conventions that aim to protect the environment. One of the most important of these is the Convention on Biodiversity. The main purpose of this convention is to encourage governments to apply the principles of sustainable development in the running of their countries and the management of natural resources.

    1. What can councils and communities do to promote sustainable development?

    Life on our planet is interconnected – for example, if we destroy all the trees in South Africa or Africa, it will contribute to global warming and affect people, not only on the continent but also across the world.  Environmental awareness and action, however, start at local level. There are a number of issues that affect local communities, around which the council and communities should mobilise and take action such as:

    1. Government framework and responsibilities for environmental   management

    The National Environmental Management Act provides a framework for the country in its approach to the environment.  It covers the following areas:

    A number of government departments have specific responsibilities to address different aspects to sustain our environment and safety.  For example, the labour department has inspectors that go to places of work to see that workers do not work in conditions which is unsafe for them. The health department and municipalities take responsibility for hygiene, waste management, etc. The department of the environment and tourism as well as agriculture and water deal with pollution of rivers.

    1. How can development workers assist in maintaining environmental health and safety?

    Keep your eyes open for threats to community health such as:

    Report any problems to your municipality or one of the relevant government departments.

    Further reading:
    Chapter on environmental law in the paralegal manual
    Guide on Sustainable development in section on  “Understanding development”


Local Economic Development (LED)  |   Life Long Learning and the World of Work   |  Land Reform   |  Health  |  Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment   | Small Business Development   |  Disaster management   |  Infrastructure Development   |  Safety and Security   |  Combating Poverty: Social Development and Grants   |  Education Policy: Admissions and school fees  |  School Governing Bodies  |  The Expanded Public Works Programme  |  Housing subsidies and support services  |   Basic Services   |  Workers’ rights  Environmental Health and Safety   |   Disability Policy and Services    |   Children's Rights

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