Maintaining the ecological flows of estuaries: a critical reflection on the application and interpretation of the relevant legal framework through the lens of the Klein River Estuary
South Africa has 291 functional estuaries of which 43 per cent are threatened. These estuaries provide numerous environmental goods and services to the species situated within and adjacent to them. In an effort to improve the protection of the country's estuaries and the environmental goods and services they provide, many laws of direct and indirect relevance to estuaries have been introduced over the past two decades. The provision of these environmental goods and services is contingent, however, upon maintaining the natural ecological flows inherent in estuaries. One significant threat to maintaining these natural ecological flows is the artificial opening of the mouth of an estuary, an action often triggered by the desire to protect private property against flooding when estuarine water levels rise. Decisions to artificially open the mouth of an estuary often therefore need to achieve a difficult balance between ecological (generally public) interests and proprietary (generally private) interests, a balance which should ideally be informed by the numerous laws, and their associated plans and policies, of direct relevance to protecting and managing estuaries. The courts have recently been called upon to resolve disputes regarding decisions about whether or not to artificially open the mouth of an estuary, and what one recent decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Abbott v Overstrand Municipality 2016 JOL 35969 (SCA) clearly illustrates is that there are not only significant challenges in the implementation of the legal framework of direct relevance to estuaries, but also in the judiciary's understanding and application thereof. It furthermore illustrates distinct anomalies in the interpretation of the original, assigned and incidental executive authority of local government in relation to environmental matters, and that notwithstanding a swathe of recent relevant jurisprudence in this regard, confusion still abounds in this environmental governance quagmire.
Keywords: Estuaries; ecological flows; coastal management; estuarine management; legal frameworks; constitutional executive authority; local environmental governance