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Communities in Mpumalanga are demanding meaningful consultative forums to address the serious health impacts of water pollution caused by coal-mining companies  

24 October 2019 at 4:48 pm

In July 2019, the Centre for Environmental Rights released a report as part of CER’s Full Disclosure series, on eight large coal mining companies operating in Mpumalanga, uncovering many cases of significant non-compliance with their water use licences. The report illustrated how a failure by the Department of Human Settlements, Water & Sanitation (the ‘Department’) to effectively process and monitor compliance with water use licences, combined with large scale non-compliance by coal companies, and negligent auditing by independent auditors, has contributed to massive pollution of the Upper Olifants Catchment.

The tragic impact of these failures is the effect of water pollution on the health of local communities who rely on polluted water for washing, bathing, cooking and drinking. These communities are now coming together to discuss the ways in which their health and the health of their children can be protected from further harm. Thomas Mnguni, from – groundWork, a non-profit environmental justice service and developmental organization, has said that “for too long, coal companies in Mpumalanga have been allowed to put profits over people and pollute water resources, destroying people’s health, agricultural livelihoods and any chance for future generations to live on the land and enjoy fresh, clean air and water.” He says further, that the objective of this Saturday’s Shadow Catchment Management Agency (CMA) meeting in Witbank, Emalahleni, will be to challenge government to establish a CMA for the Olifants Water Management Area, so that people can access information about the types of harmful pollutants which are affecting their health and lodge grievances in their local areas about violations of their basic human right to safe, drinking water and a healthy environment.” He says that “we are having this Shadow CMA meeting to show how a CMA in Mpumalanga, could and should operate!”

CER has previously reported on how the rampant, unchecked pollution of the Upper Olifants Catchment, has been ongoing despite the fact that the Upper Olifants Catchment, where the eight coal mining operations are situated, has been identified by the Department as one of South Africa’s most stressed catchment areas in relation to both water quantity and quality. CER’s Leanne Govindsamy highlights that “the effective establishment of an Olifants Catchment Management Agency would ensure that water resource governance is decentralised and that communities are able to properly participate in decision-making. A functional CMA would further play an important role in holding companies to account for non-compliance with their water use licences”

The establishment of CMA’s has been central to government policy of striving towards a more participatory and inclusionary approach to water governance and were incorporated in the White Paper on a National Water Policy, 1997; National Water Act, 1998 and the National Water Resource Strategy, 2013 (NWRS2). The National Water Act highlights that the purpose of establishing CMAs is to “… delegate water management to regional or catchment level, and to involve local communities.” In this regard, CMAs should be established as a matter of urgency. This would facilitate the delegation of water resource management and the involvement of communities in water governance and decision-making, on a catchment level. Currently, the Upper Olifants would fall under the Olifants Water Management Area and no official CMA is in existence. Instead, a ‘proto-CMA’, operating from the regional Departmental office provides some but not all functions of a CMA and is so far away from communities affected by water pollution, that it remains largely inaccessible. If one looks at the powers and functioning of the Inkomati Usuthu Catchment Management Agency (IUCMA) it illustrates how companies and communities can be better served by decentralised governance of water resources. Firstly, water-use licence holders are able to go directly to the IUCMA and apply for and amend water-use licences, while the IUCMA is close enough to mining operations that inspections are made easy and efficient, drastically improving turnaround times for licence applications and ensuring proper monitoring and enforcement of licence conditions. Secondly, the local nature of the IUCMA allows for communities to have better access to information and are able to participate in catchment management forums, allowing for proper public participation and consultation, the cornerstone of our democracy.

Matthews Hlabane, a local activist in the Mpumalanga area says that “people are in desperate need for solutions to the terrible health impacts of air, soil and water pollution” and that “mining companies need to ensure that they comply with the law and prevent any harm to people and the environment, and the creation of an Olifants Catchment Management Agency will definitely help to do the work that the Department has not done, for so many years.”

It is hoped that local communities and activists from groundWork and CER, will be able to pool ideas and resources to pressure government into establishing the Olifants Catchment Management Agency and most importantly, it is hoped that Saturday’s meeting offers a much needed platform for communities to come together and share their ideas on how to challenge government, corporations and even independent auditors to fix and strengthen the broken system for water-use licence compliance and monitoring.

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For media queries:
Lerato Balendran
Communications Manager, Centre for Environmental Rights
lbalendran@cer.org.za

Zahra Omar
Attorney at CER
zomar@cer.org.za

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Section 24of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

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