An A to Z list of Environmental phrases and words
Thanks to the City of Cape Town for providing the basis for this list to which we have added more entries.
We will expand the list as and when we find more interesting and useful words and phrases.
There is a link to the City of Cape Town website at the end of this list.
Acid Rain Polluted air from factories and power stations often has sulphur dioxide in it. When this combines with rainwater, you get acid rain. Acid rain damages plants and buildings, and can affect your health.
Aesthetic Having a sense of the beautiful or characterized by a love of beauty.
Afforestation The act or process of establishing a forest, especially on land not previously forested.
Agenda 21 The international policy agreed on at the Rio Conference in 1992. Under Agenda 21, countries agreed to work towards sustainable social, economic and environmental development.
Agricultural pollution Farming wastes, including runoff and leaching of pesticides and fertilizers; erosion and dust from plowing; improper disposal of animal manure and carcasses; crop residues, and debris.
Agricultural waste Poultry and livestock manure, and residual materials in liquid or solid form generated from the production and marketing of poultry, livestock, furbearing animals and their products. This also includes grain, vegetable and fruit harvest waste.
Air pollution events The days when air pollution levels go over the limits set in recommended guidelines.
Alien species Plants and animals, which do not occur naturally in an area – they are brought in by humans. Alien plants often force indigenous species out of the area. Rooikrans is a good example of alien species in the Cape.
Alternative energy sources Also called “renewable sources of energy” because these sources, such as the sun and wind, can never be exhausted. Unlike energy generated from fossil fuels such as coal and crude oil (which can be exhausted), they do not lead to high concentrations of harmful gases in the atmosphere.
Anthropogenic Resulting from the presence or activities of humans.
Aquatic ecosystem An ecosystem that provides a habitat for aquatic plants and animals which also sustains aquatic ecological processes.
Aquifer Rock formations under the ground that carry water – this water can be recovered and used for washing and cooking.
Arable land Land that is fertile enough for you to plant on and farm.
Assessment A study to carefully check something. >> See Environmental Impact Assessment.
Atmosphere The air surrounding the Earth, described as a series of layers of different characteristics. The atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen and oxygen with traces of carbon dioxide, water vapour and other gases, acts as a buffer between Earth and the sun.
Audit A way of measuring how well something is working. >> See Environmental audit.
Best Practicable Environmental Option The option that provides the most benefits or results with the least damage to the environment as a whole at a cost acceptable to society in the short- and long term.
Biodegradable The ability of a substance to be broken down physically and/or chemically by micro organisms.
Biodiversity The rich variety of plants and animals that live in their own environment. Fynbos is a good example of rich biodiversity in the Cape.
Biome A major living unit consisting of plant and animal communities having similarities in form and environmental conditions, but not including the non-living (abiotic) portion of the environment.
Biophysical environment The part of the environment which did not originate with and is not dependent on human activities (e.g. biological, physical and chemical objects and processes).
Bioremediation The use of living organisms (e.g. bacteria) to clean up oil spills or remove other pollutants from soil, water and wastewater.
Biosphere Part of the Earth system in which life can exist.
Biota The living organisms (animals and plants) in an area.
Brownfields Abandoned or under-used industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental pollution.
Brown haze Air pollution caused by traffic and factories. Part of brown haze is smog, which forms when water vapour mixes with pollution particles in the air. You can often see brown haze over Cape Town in winter.
Built environment Physical surroundings created by human activity, e.g. buildings, houses, roads, bridges and harbours. Themes that form part of the built environment are urbanisation, infrastructure, transport, energy and waste.
Capacity Building The improvement of an organisation’s or community’s ability to perform its tasks effectively and confidently. It may include skills training, organisational development and financial resources.
Carrying capacity The maximum number of users that can be supported by a resource, e.g. the maximum number of cattle that can feed on one farm.
Catchment Area of land that collects rainwater into a river or stream, which then carries the water to a lake or the sea.
Catchment management Controlling and protecting catchment areas – areas of land that collect rain water into a river or stream, which then carries the water to a lake, dam or the sea.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) A family of chemicals commonly used in air conditioners and refrigerators as coolants and also as solvents and aerosol propellants. CFC’s drift into the upper atmosphere where their chlorine components destroy ozone.
City of Cape Town (CCT) The local authority that provides municipal services to the people of Cape Town (established in December 2000). The six previous municipalities of Blaauwberg, Cape Town, Helderberg, Oostenberg, South Peninsula and Tygerberg, along with the Cape Metropolitan Council, are now part of the new City of Cape Town (also called “the Unicity”).
Climate change A change which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere. The build-up of manmade gases in the atmosphere trap the suns heat, causing changes in weather patterns on a global scale. The effects include changes in rainfall patterns, sea level rise, potential droughts, habitat loss and heat stress.
Coliform bacteria Bacteria that are usually found in animal faeces and sewage, and are indicators of the quality of water. They are not pathogenic (disease-causing), but are indicators of the possible presence of pathogens.
Commercial waste All solid waste from businesses. This category includes, but is not limited to, solid waste originating in stores, markets, office buildings, restaurants, shopping centres and theatres.
Community-based organisation (CBOs) Groups based within communities that are involved in support and developmental work at a local level.
Compost Decomposed organic material that is produced when bacteria/earthworms in soil break down garbage and biodegradable trash, making organic fertiliser.
Congestion The daily build-up of heavy traffic that blocks the roads.
Conservation Protecting, using and saving resources wisely, especially the biodiversity found in an area.
Consumption Using something, e.g. by eating or burning.
Contamination Polluting or making something impure.
Crime rate The number of crimes committed for every 100 000 people in a year.
Data Information, statistics and records used to update Sustainability Reports.
Deforestation Destroying forests and woodlands, leading to climate changes, the death of animals and soil erosion.
Degradation The lowering of the quality of the environment through human activities, e.g. river degradation, soil degradation.
Desalination The removal, using any of several processes, of excess salt and other minerals from water in order to obtain fresh water suitable for animal consumption or irrigation, and if almost all of the salt is removed, for human consumption, sometimes producing table salt as a by-product.
Desertification The process by which an area or region becomes more arid through loss of soil and vegetation.
Development The process of changing something so that it moves forward, improves or grows. >> See Economic development and Environmental development.
Disposal The discharge, deposit, injection, dumping, spilling, leaking, or placing of any solid waste or hazardous waste into the environment (land, surface water, groundwater and air).
Dump A land site where wastes are discarded in a disorderly or haphazard fashion without regard to protecting the environment.
Ecology The scientific study of the relationship between living things (animals, plants and humans) and their environment.
Economic development Developing the economy of a region or country, e.g. expanding economic activities, improving work skills, creating jobs.
Economic Development Strategy An approach to guide local government actions to promote global competitiveness and reduce poverty by co- ordinating and integrating a range of economic activities across the City of Cape Town.
Ecosystem A system involving the relationships and interactions between plants, animals and the non-living environment.
Ecotourism Planning and managing tourism in a way that is sensitive to the natural environment. Ecotourism also involves helping the natural environment to be sustained by the economic benefits of tourist activities, e.g. camping facilities, hiking, horse trails, and game-watching.
Effluent Liquid released as waste from sewage and industrial plants.
Emissions Discharging or sending out of substances or fluids, e.g. car fumes.
Endangered species Animals, plants, birds, fish, or other living organisms threatened with extinction by manmade or natural changes in the environment.
Endemic species Plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world.
Environment Our surroundings, including living and non-living elements, e.g. land, soil, plants, animals, air, water and humans. The environment also refers to our built, social and economic surroundings, and our effect on our surroundings.
Environmental To do with the environment.
Environmental audit A detailed assessment to check if an organisation is following the law, its environmental policies and its Environmental Management System (EMS). The results of the audit help the organisation to improve its environmental policies and management system.
Environmental development Taking steps to develop and improve the environment by carrying out responsible environmental policies.
Environmental equity Equal protection of people, groups and communities from environmental hazards.
Environmental governance Government’s present and future duty to protect the environment through things like monitoring, control, management and making laws.
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) A scientific study of the likely effect on the environment of proposed activities or development. EIAs help bodies like local authorities to decide if they should accept proposals, e.g. to develop a piece of land for housing.
Environmental management Making sure that environmental concerns are included in all stages of development, so that development is sustainable.
Environmental Management Systems (EMS) The structures, plans and processes that are developed to manage the environment in an area.
Environmental policy Guidelines and rules for managing and protecting the environment. >> See Integrated Metropolitan Environmental Policy.
Environmental sustainability Maintaining the environment in a responsible way to keep it healthy for future generations.
Estuaries The widening channels of rivers as they near the sea.
Eutrophication The process whereby nutrients (e.g. phosphates or nitrates) accumulate in a body of water.
Event greening Hosting events or associated services, in such a way that have minimal effect on the environment and maximum benefit to the people.
Faecal Referring to body waste, e.g. faecal coliform bacteria found in water.
Faecal coliforms These are a sub-group of coliform bacteria and are more accurate indicators of faecal pollution due to their growth at high temperatures.
Fauna Animal life in an area.
Floodplains Flat area next to rivers, made up of soils deposited during flooding.
Flora Plant life in an area.
Formal sector Part of the economy where people are employed by government, industries and companies.
Fossil fuels Non-reusable and decayed organic material that can be burned or consumed to produce energy e.g. oil, natural gas and coal.
Fynbos Low-growing and evergreen vegetation found only in the South Western Cape. Fynbos is known for its rich biodiversity.
Geomorphology The study of the characteristics, origin, and development of landforms.
Global competitiveness The ability of an area to attract foreign and local investment and to sell goods and services internationally.
Globalisation The process of becoming part of the world economy.
Global warming The noticeable increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans in recent decades and its projected continuation. An increase in global temperatures can in turn cause other changes, including a rising sea level and changes in the amount and pattern of rainfall. These changes may increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes and tornados. The accepted term used now is “climate change” which includes global warming.
Governance The system and manner used to govern an area or issue, e.g. environmental governance.
Greenfields Sections of undeveloped land, either currently used for agriculture or just left to nature.
Greenhouse effect The gradual increase in the temperature of the earth, caused by the sun’s rays reaching the surface of the earth and being trapped by pollution in the air.
Greenhouse gas A gaseous component of the atmosphere contributing to the greenhouse effect.
Grey water Any water that has already been used and has the potential for reuse without treatment.
Groundwater Water found underground, typically supplying wells, boreholes and springs.
Habitat The physical environment that is home to plants and animals in an area, and where they live, feed and reproduce
Hazardous waste Waste that is a threat to the well-being of people, plants and animals, e.g. hazardous waste from factories, detergents, pesticides and vehicles.
Heavy metal A common hazardous waste; can damage organisms at a low concentration and tends to accumulate in the food chain.
Herbicide A pesticide designed to control or kill plants, weeds or grasses. Almost 70% of all pesticides used by farmers are herbicides. These chemicals have wide-ranging effects on non-target species (other than those the pesticide is meant to control).
Hydrology The properties, distribution and circulation of water on Earth.
Indicator A mark or a measure that helps you to know if you are succeeding in reaching your goals. Indicators are often used in a State of Environment Report to measure environmental quality and changes.
Indigenous species Plants and animals that are naturally found in an area.
Informal sector Part of the economy where people are self-employed and earn a living through activities such as street- trading.
Informal settlement Houses (often of a temporary nature) erected on land of which the majority have not formally been proclaimed and serviced for residential use.
Infrastructure The network of facilities and services that are needed for economic activities, e.g. roads, electricity, water, and sewerage treatment.
Integrated Mixing or combining all useful information and factors into a joint or unified whole. >> See Integrated Environmental Management.
Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) The policy of managing catchments by including all important information, factors and stakeholders that can affect the environment in the catchment.
Integrated Development Plan (IDP) A plan for development of the City of Cape Town that considers and combines all important elements and factors, e.g. land use planning, economic development, public investment and the monitoring of performance.
Integrated Environmental Management (IEM) A way of managing the environment by including environmental factors in all stages of development. This includes thinking about physical, social, cultural and economic factors, and consulting with all the people affected by the proposed developments.
Integrated Metropolitan Environmental Policy (IMEP) The environmental policy developed for the City of Cape Town. The IMEP is a good example of Integrated Environmental Management.
Kelvin Scale An absolute scale of temperature in which each degree equals one kelvin. Water freezes at 273.15 K and boils at 373.15 K.
Kibble An iron bucket used in wells or mines for hoisting water, ore, or refuse to the surface.
Kilowatt A unit of power equal to 1000 watts.
Land degradation Reduction in capacity of the soil or vegetation to support life, through the damage to physical, chemical or biological properties, contributing to an unsustainable ecological system.
Landfills / Landfill site Places like quarries and mines, used for disposing household and industrial waste, and hazardous waste.
Landscape The patterns and structure of a specific geographic area or place, including its natural, built and socio- economic environments.
Land use The use of land for human activities, e.g. residential, commercial, industrial use.
Local Agenda 21 Local government projects to carry out sustainable development under Agenda 21. This charter developed out of the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio, Brazil in 1992.
Mariculture Growing sea-plants and animals in their natural environment in the sea or on land-based sea farms.
Marine Of the sea, or to do with the sea.
Marine Protected Area (MPA) An area where some types of fish or plants are protected.
Median concentration Average amount of water quality measurements like nitrogen and phosphates found in a quantity of measured water.
Metropolitan Of or to do with a large town or city, e.g. metropolitan government
Metropolitan Open Space System (MOSS) A planned network to ensure open spaces in cities and towns to facilitate conservation, agriculture and recreational and cultural enjoyment.
Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework (MSDF) The overall plan to guide what kinds of physical developments are allowed in the City of Cape Town, and where these should be positioned, e.g. housing, transport and social services developments.
Mixed land use Mixed land use refers to a combination of land uses such as a mixture of commercial, industrial, retail, entertainment and institutional uses.
National park Land kept for protecting plants, animals and scenery, and for human enjoyment. In the City of Cape Town, the Table Mountain National Park includes Table Mountain and other mountains and wetlands ending at Cape Point.
Natural environment Our physical surroundings, including plants and animals, when they are unspoiled by human activities. Themes that form part of the natural environment are: air quality, inland waters, coastal waters and biodiversity.
Natural heritage site A site of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic, scientific or conservation point of view which encompass natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations. This also includes precisely delineated areas which provide a habitat for threatened species of animals or plants.
Natural resource Any resource provided by the biophysical environment.
Network A system of things that are all connected and dependent on each other, e.g. roads, telephone lines.
Non-governmental organisation (NGOs) Groups and bodies, outside of the government that are involved in advice, support, funding and development work.
Non-renewable Resources Raw materials available for a limited time, which can run out. Examples include coal and oil.
Nuclear power The energy generated by nuclear power stations that leads to nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste The energy generated by nuclear power stations leads to nuclear waste – leftover substances and materials that can pollute the environment.
Nutrients Mineral substances that are absorbed by living organisms for nourishment.
Over-utilisation Over-using resources – this affects their future use and the environment.
Ozone An almost colourless, gaseous form of oxygen with an odour similar to weak chlorine.
Ozone layer The layer of ozone that begins approximately 15km above the Earth and thins to an almost negligible amount at about 50km; it shields the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
Perennial All year round.
Pesticide A substance meant to repel, kill or control any species designated a ‘pest’ including weeds, insects, rodents, fungi, bacteria or other organisms. The family of pesticides includes herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, fungicides and bactericides.
Point-source pollution Pollution that comes from a single source.
Policy A framework or basis for action to overcome identified problems and to achieve stated goals. A policy helps you make decisions and manage an organisation or structure. Policies are based on people’s values and goals. >> See Integrated Metropolitan Environmental Policy.
Pollution Harming or contaminating the natural environment as a result of human activities, especially through household and chemical waste, e.g. substances, noise, dust, smells.
Population growth An increase in the number of people, e.g. when the birth rate is higher than the death rate; when more people arrive in a city to live than leave the city.
Poverty More than a lack of income. A situation where people cannot achieve a minimum standard of living.
Pressure-State-Response model A model used for environmental reporting that covers: the pressures affecting the environment, the state of the environment, and the current and future responses to these environmental challenges.
Prevalence The rate at which something exists, happens or spreads, e.g. the prevalence of HIV and AIDS.
Process Development usually happens through a process – a number of planned steps or stages.
Quantity Surveyor A person who calculates the amount of materials needed for building work, and how much they will cost.
Quartz A hard mineral consisting of silica, found widely in igneous and metamorphic rocks and typically occurring as colourless or white hexagonal prisms. It is often coloured by impurities
Rare and endangered species Species that have naturally small populations and species which have been reduced to small (often unstable) populations by human activity.
Recycling Collecting, cleaning and re-using waste materials.
Red Data species Classified endangered species threatened with extinction.
Renewable Resources Raw materials that can be replaced by natural processes.
Resource management Controlling and running resources in a planned and responsible way.
Resources Parts of our natural environment that we use and protect e.g. land, forests, water, wildlife, and minerals (like sand for building).
Riparian Living or located on the banks of streams or rivers.
Runoff Water that does not filter into soil but flows over the surface and into natural surface waters.
Salinisation Increase in the amount of salts or dissolved solids in the water or the process by which salts accumulate in soils, to the detriment of cultivated plants.
Scoping report The first stage of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
Sectoral strategies Plans, programmes and actions to address the needs and concerns of different environmental themes, e.g. air quality, waste, biodiversity.
Sewage Household or industrial liquid waste that is carried away in sewers and drains.
Smog Dust, smoke or chemical fumes that pollute the air and make hazy, unhealthy conditions (literally, the word is a blend of smoke and fog).
Socio-economic environment The part of the environment that is linked to human activities (e.g. social, economic, cultural and political processes). Themes that form part of the socio-economic environment are: the economy, health, education, safety and security, and environmental governance.
Soil erosion The loss of soil through the washing, wearing and falling away of the soil.
Solar power Power harnessed from the sun’s energy and light.
Solar water heater A complete operating system that uses energy from the sun to produce hot water and that comprises one or more collectors, hot water tanks and includes all the necessary interconnecting pipes and functional components.
Solid waste Any solid, semi solid, liquid or contained gaseous materials discarded from industrial, commercial mining or agricultural operations and from community activities. Solid waste includes garbage, construction debris, commercial refuse, sludge from water supply or waste treatment plants or air pollution control facilities and other discarded materials.
Spatial planning Working out the best use of space for development, e.g. houses, factories, roads and sports fields.
Species Types of animals or plants.
Species diversity The range of species in an area or habitat.
Species richness The number of species in an area or habitat.
Stakeholders People and organisations that are involved or interested in an area or an issue, e.g. residents, councillors, business people, trade unions.
Stormwater drainage System of underground pipes that removes rain and other water from the ground, roads and roofs to rivers, lakes and the sea.
Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) The administrative or regulatory process of evaluating the environmental impacts of a policy, plan or programme and its alternatives.
Surface water Water above the ground surface in lakes, dams, rivers and pans.
Sustainability Being able to meet the needs of present and future generations by the responsible use of resources.
Sustainability Report A progress report on environmental conditions, issues and conditions, that helps in the drawing up of environmental policies and meeting environmental challenges.
Sustainable Something that is protected and maintained so that it can be used in the future.
Sustainable agriculture Environmentally friendly methods of farming that allow the production of crops or livestock without damage to the farm as an ecosystem, including effects on soil, water supplies, biodiversity or other surrounding natural resources.
Sustainable development Development that is planned to meet the needs of present and future generations, e.g. the need for basic environmental, social and economic services. Sustainable development includes using and maintaining resources responsibly.
Tree Felling The tearing down of trees in a jungle or forest to make space for agriculture and to use the wood for construction, paper, or other uses.
Toxic chemical A substance that can cause severe illness, poisoning, birth defects, disease or death when ingested, inhaled or absorbed by living organisms.
Toxic cloud An airborne mass of gases, vapours, fumes or aerosols of toxic materials.
Unemployment When people are not working – this includes discouraged job seekers who have not recently taken active steps to find work.
Unicity The one-city political and administrative Council that united seven local government structures as “the City of Cape Town” from the December 2000 local government elections.
Urban agriculture The cultivation of crops within urban areas and on urban fringes, for subsistence or commercial purposes. The activity is often of a small scale and a high intensity.
Urban form The structures found in an urban environment.
Urbanisation Migration of people from rural to urban areas – this can lead to overpopulation and unemployment in urban areas. Urbanisation is the main process driving the creation and development of cities.
Urban sprawl The gradual and uncontrolled spread of urban areas into the surrounding natural areas.
V-Shaped Valley Valleys typically eroded by stream action. U-Shaped Valleys, by contrast, are characteristic of glacial erosion.
Vegetation The different types of plants in an area.
Veld A South African term for natural vegetation, usually grassland, typically containing scattered shrubs or trees.
Waste Any superfluous by-product, emission, residue or remainder of any process or activity.
Waste management A control system to limit, collect and dispose of waste in an efficient and environmentally friendly way through clear policies and environmental standards, e.g. reducing plastic packets.
Wastewater Water left over after it has been used, e.g. in homes, gardens and factories.
Water supply Water that is collected and stored – usually in dams to be sent for use in cities and towns.
Wetlands An area of land with water mostly at or near the surface, resulting in a waterlogged habitat e.g. vleis, swamps.
World heritage site A natural site that is internationally recognised as very important for the conservation of biodiversity, e.g. a habitat for plants or animals that are in danger of dying out. World heritage sites are often used as areas for ecotourism to create jobs.
X-Year Flood The magnitude of a flood which has a 1-in-X chance of being exceeded in any future one-year period. For example, a 2-year flood would have a 1-in-2 (50 percent) chance of exceedence in any one year; a 10-year flood, a 1-in-10 (10 percent) chance; a 100-year flood, a 1-in-100 (1 percent) chance, etc. These values are statistically derived, using past flood records. They are used for many reasons, but especially for engineering drainage and water supply structures. As the occurrence of floods is random in time, there is no guarantee that there will not be two X-year floods within a given year. There is also no guarantee that there will be an X-year flood in an X-year time period, or even in a 2X period. Finally, an X-Year, Y-Duration Rain will not necessarily produce an X-year flood. Storm duration and intensity, antecedent moisture and other conditions can cause X-year rains to produce more or less than X-year floods. For example, a 100-year, 6-hour rain over a very dry basin may only produce a 2-year flood, whereas a 5-year, 6-hour rain over a saturated or burned basin could cause a 100-year flood.
Xeric Shrubs Shrubs and plants that survive in an environment or habitat that contains little moisture; very dry.
Xylophagous Animals that eat wood, such as termites.
Zingg Bench Terrace A special type of bench terrace designed for dryland moisture conservation. Typically employs an earthen embankment similar to the ridge terrace; a part of the terrace interval immediately above the ridge is bench-leveled. Runoff water from the sloping area is retained on the leveled area and absorbed by the soil.
Zone of Eluviation The two uppermost zones in the soil profile, consisting of the A-Horizon, from which soluble Salts and Colloids are leached, and in which organic matter has accumulated and generally constitutes the most fertile soil layer, and the B-Horizon, or the lower soil zone which is enriched by the deposition or precipitation of material from the overlying zone, or A-horizon. Also referred to as the Solum.
Zone of Engineering Control The area occupied by a hazardous waste treatment, storage, or disposal facility which the owner or operator can readily decontaminate if a leak is detected, thus preventing hazardous waste or its constituents from entering groundwater or surface water.
Zoning The control of land use by only allowing land development in fixed areas or zones.
Zoocoria The distribution of fruit and seeds by animals. The seeds of some plants are transported by animals which eat them and then release them in their feces. Other seeds are carried on the bodies of animals and are later released.
You can link to the City of Cape Town website here: capetown.gov.za