2Q – Mining’s effects on water

Supporting article Q: While our mines might have made our country rich in the past, few people kept an eye on the environmental cost to our scarce water resources


South Africa’s poisoned water
17 May 2010

TAU SA says mining is threatening agriculture, clean water supply

“Like confetti at a wedding!”

This is the way South African environmentalists describe the government’s Department of Water and Forestry’s ( DWF) plan to stop toxic pollution of the country’s water supply. Now the Deputy President of TAU SA and chairman of the National Water Forum (NWDF) Louis Meintjes is laying a criminal charge with the South African Police against three SA cabinet ministers for violations under the National Water Act.

Persistent warnings over the years by individuals and groups about our polluted rivers and dams, collapsing water infrastructure and dysfunctional sewage works have fallen on deaf ears. Denialism is something of a fetish with the government – say it isn’t so and it will go away!

“It is clear that the ministers in question do not comply with the provisions of the Act, either intentionally or by negligence. Thus we have no choice but to charge them criminally and to demand that the matter be investigated thoroughly and that these perpetrators be prosecuted”, said Mr. Meintjes.

It is axiomatic that you cannot manage what you don’t comprehend! If you don’t understand nuclear physics, or water safety, or municipal accounts, then how can you assume to manage these important elements of South Africa’s daily life? The difference between South Africa and much of the rest of the world is that those in positions of “management” somehow don’t comprehend they are incompetent:  those who criticize them are either racists or a “scoring political points”. This is a dangerous attitude for the future of South Africa.

Dr. Sizwe Mkize, a senior official at DWF retorted to those who, at a recent press conference, asked him about South Africa’s water crisis – “I think it’s just hearsay. We’re a dry country but we’re not in a crisis whatsoever. You have water coming out of the taps in your house, don’t you?” Mr. Meintjes is supplying full documentation to support the criminal charges, and to prove that South Africa’s poisoned water supply is not just “hearsay”.

It is not such a quantum mental leap to query why the mining industry has played a none-too-small role in polluting South Africa’s water and, by extension, its ground. The “evaporation of moral fibre” which permeates the Department of Minerals and Resources (DMR) is how one journalist (Citizen 21 April, 2010) has described the behaviour of this department:  their cavalier and negligent attitude in granting mining permits willy nilly is adding to the worsening water pollution. (Does anything change hands during this process?)

A few years ago, mining people in Kimberley described how DMR officials popped into their offices at the weekend to see who was applying for what licences. These were crudely copied, and the rest is history, says The Citizen.

It seems the mining industry has taken on the couldn’t-care-less, everyman-for-himself approach to life that permeates virtually the whole of the government’s civil service.
Canada’s Fraser Institute has just ranked South Africa 61 out of 72 mining jurisdictions across the world. Of ten African nations in the survey, we were only ahead of the “chaotic” Democratic Republic of Congo and “drain-piped” Zimbabwe, according to the Citizen.

South Africa’s water is in such a fragile state that the situation is ready to shift into national disaster mode. The quality of South Africa’s water is deteriorating not only because of pollution but as a result of acid mine drainage (AMD) from the mining industry. Globally, AMD has been cited as posing environmental risks second only to climate change.

This acid mine water refers to a deadly cocktail of toxic chemicals, including heavy metals and radioactive uranium, as well as high levels of sulphates, leaking from disused mine workings into dolomitic areas underground, infiltrating ground water and overflowing to the surface water sources. This acid drainage lowers water quality, poisons food crops and poses several health risks, including increased rates of cancer, decreased brain function and skin lesions.

Its impacts are manifesting on the flooded Western Basin, near Randfontein and Krugersdorp. Here, millions of litres of acid drainage have been gushing for more than two months into the already poisoned Tweelopies Spruit, passing through the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and ultimately reaching important river systems.

Minister of Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica has announced a R6,9 billion state subsidy to increase the pumping and treatment capacity of Rand Uranium and Mintails’ water treatment plants. The Minister admitted that the drainage was “a ticking time bomb” (How many ticking time bombs are there now in South Africa?). But a week before her visit to the area, she told Parliament that drinking and farming water in the area was not affected by pollution!

This is not a new catastrophe! Acid drainage started bubbling to the surface in 2002. The government ordered mining groups DRD Gold, Rand Uranium and Mintails to halt the surface flow of this acidic water by treating it before pumping it into nearby streams. Now only Rand Uranium treats its water. Even the Cradle of Humankind in nearby Sterkfontein is affected! In 2002, the same government statements were made about the “unacceptability” of the situation, but nothing has happened.

South Africa’s mining industry is becoming less and less competitive. Rand Uranium is spending R2,5 million a month treating its water. Environmentalists are worried that the acid is eating away at the underground dolomite, and that it is consistently filtering into aquifers used for drinking and irrigation.

It is not only in the West Rand that the danger lurks. Experts have warned that in less than three years, acid mine water will begin to flow uncontrollably out of the Central Basin, below Johannesburg, and in 18 months polluted water in that basin will reach critical levels, affecting the structural integrity of the Johannesburg CBD.

“South Africa’s future is limited by surface water availability”, says scientist Mike Whitcutt. “But we have abundant groundwater so it is crazy to use this reserve as a sump for pollutants.”

The government is planning to meet with mining groups to discuss the long-term treatment of their waste water. We shouldn’t hold our breath that these “discussions” will come to anything any time soon. To assist in saving the country’s water, the mining industry should take the bull by the horns and become self-regulatory with regard to ethical practice. Waiting for the government to do something is like waiting for a lottery win!

Mining in South Africa has been generally extremely profitable. “Former mine owners made billions and depleted resources” says Mariette Liefferink of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. “They left us with aquifers polluted with acid drainage. This is most immoral.” Her organization is taking various government departments to court over the acid drainage crisis “which the government has been warned about since 1996”, she says.

Who is most directly affected by mining’s poisonous waste water? Food security is in serious danger, say experts. Scores of farmers in the Free State and Mpumalanga complain that the first they hear of mining applications approved by DMR is when representatives of mining companies arrive on their farms to start drilling.

How many people realized the disastrous consequences of the state’s legislation to take over all mineral rights in the country? Parts of a maize farm in Mpumalanga are unusable because of the salts and metals emanating from an unsealed water pollution control dam on a neighbouring farm now being mined by a colliery. In the Bothaville and Kroonstad areas, up to 25 notices have been served on farmers over the past 18 months informing them that mining companies have been granted rights to prospect on their land. And once a notice has been served, there is nothing more the farmer can do.

Mpumalanga and the Free State account for over half of the country’s grain production. Together with the North West, 80% of the country’s grain is grown. Mpumalanga’s lucrative fruit and vegetable export market is now threatened – if the quality of the water is lowered, the European Union will reject the produce. One hundred and four mines in the country are being operated without water licences, this in a country where mineral rights are more valued by the government it seems than food production. Only 20% of South Africa’s agricultural land is highly productive and arable.

We are indeed sitting on a time bomb, but who will defuse it?
(See National Water Forum’s website www.nwf.za.net )
This article first appeared in TAU SA’s bulletin