Pro­posed coal mine a threat to SA’s wa­ter se­cu­rity

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Melissa Fourie

IT IS well known that the Mpumalanga grass­lands are vi­tally im­por­tant for South Africa’s wa­ter se­cu­rity. Many of the coun­try’s big­gest rivers, in­clud­ing the Vaal, the Tugela and the Pon­gola, orig­i­nate here. De­stroy these grass­lands and we are in far more se­ri­ous trou­ble than we have been dur­ing the re­cent drought.

Yet that is ex­actly what has been pro­posed by In­dian-owned min­ing com­pany Atha-Africa Ven­tures: a coal mine within a par­tic­u­larly spe­cial part of the Mpumalanga grass­lands. The 15-year un­der­ground mine will yield low-grade coal that Atha says it wants to ex­port or sell to Eskom. Given the state of the coal-ex­port mar­ket, and the state of Eskom, this al­ready sounds like a risky propo­si­tion. But place that same mine in the Ekan­gala-Drak­ens­berg Strate­gic Wa­ter Source Area, in a de­clared pro­tected area, and a risky fi­nan­cial propo­si­tion be­comes a na­tional dis­as­ter.

All the au­thor­i­ties charged with pro­tect­ing our wa­ter resources, our en­vi­ron­ment and our pro­tected ar­eas seem to have dropped the ball on this one. It is not un­usual for the De­part­ment of Min­eral Resources to grant min­ing rights in sen­si­tive en­vi­ron­ments, and that de­ci­sion is be­ing chal­lenged in court. But in this case we have seen the Mpumalanga pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment grant en­vi­ron­men­tal ap­proval, upon which the De­part­ment of Wa­ter and San­i­ta­tion – ini­tially a vo­cif­er­ous op­po­nent of this project – pro­ceeded not only to grant a wa­ter-use li­cence, but also to set aside the sus­pen­sion of the li­cence trig­gered by an ap­peal by civil so­ci­ety and Mpumalanga Agri, clear­ing the way for Atha to start min­ing. Re­ly­ing on those two dis­as­trous de­ci­sions, and ig­nor­ing ap­peals by civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, Min­is­ter of Wa­ter and En­vi­ron­ment Af­fairs Edna Molewa – the trustee of our pro­tected ar­eas – for the first time granted ap­proval for com­mer­cial min­ing in a pro­tected area. Even the ANC MPs on the en­vi­ron­men­tal af­fairs port­fo­lio com­mit­tee have taken the min­is­ter to task for this de­ci­sion, but she has been un­apolo­getic and de­fi­ant.

Jobs are im­por­tant, and this part of Mpumalanga des­per­ately needs employment, but it is im­por­tant to look at the facts.

Atha’s re­port to the au­thor­i­ties claims the mine will gen­er­ate more than 500 jobs once it is fully op­er­a­tional, but it does not guar­an­tee that these jobs will be for lo­cal peo­ple. The re­port states “there is un­likely to be sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­ni­ties for the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion to be em­ployed dur­ing the con­struc­tion phase, and the op­por­tu­ni­ties are likely to be tem­po­rary”, and there will be a “lim­ited num­ber of un­skilled, semi­skilled employment op­por­tu­ni­ties”. The Atha re­port states that the 60 “skilled” jobs it es­ti­mates will be cre­ated when the mine is be­ing con­structed will not be sourced lo­cally, and that 10 man­age­ment staff will come from Atha’s In­dian op­er­a­tions.

As far as we know, none of the trustees or ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Atha’s black eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment part­ner, the Bashu­bile Trust, lives in or near Wakker­stroom, Dirkies­dorp or Volk­srust – or even in Mpumalanga.

Ex­pert re­ports have shown that the mine will lower the wa­ter ta­ble, de-wa­ter the wet­lands, and leave acid wa­ter for 45 years af­ter the mine has been closed. In other words, if the mine opens this year, min­ing will take place un­til 2032, the level of the wa­ter ta­ble will be re­stored in 2077, and wa­ter treat­ment will con­tinue un­til 2097. Atha has pro­vided a fi­nan­cial guar­an­tee of only R5.758 mil­lion for clo­sure costs.

Pol­luted wa­ter

So, in or­der to mine poor-qual­ity coal, cre­ate a small num­ber of lo­cal jobs and ben­e­fit well-con­nected peo­ple who have no links with the area, we are go­ing to de­stroy one of our most pre­cious wa­ter-source ar­eas and bear the costs of pol­luted wa­ter un­til the end of the cen­tury.

Eight civil so­ci­ety and com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions, rep­re­sented by the Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Rights, have launched a se­ries of legal chal­lenges to the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sions to ap­prove the mine. The first is an in­ter­dict ap­pli­ca­tion to­day. But all eyes are on the Mpumalanga MEC for the En­vi­ron­ment, Vusumuzi Shongwe, who has the power to set aside the en­vi­ron­men­tal au­tho­ri­sa­tion on ap­peal and pre­vent this dis­as­ter.

To mine poor-qual­ity coal and ben­e­fit a few well-con­nected peo­ple, we are go­ing to de­stroy one of our most pre­cious wa­ter-source ar­eas.

Melissa Fourie is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Cen­tre for En­vi­ron­men­tal Rights.

PHOTO: SUPPLIED

A re­port by Atha-Africa Ven­tures states “there is un­likely to be sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­ni­ties for the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion to be em­ployed” when its pro­posed coal mine in the Mpumalanga grass­lands is be­ing con­structed, and the job op­por­tu­ni­ties “are likely to be tem­po­rary”.

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