18 October 2022 at 8:00 am
On 18-19 October 2022, a coalition of environmental justice organisations, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), will appear in the Pretoria High Court for the latest hearing in the now seven-year long legal battle to prevent coal mining near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga province.
In this matter two members of the coalition are challenging the water use licence granted for the proposed new coal mine.
This is the latest development in a long-running legal campaign by the Mabola coalition to protect the area’s water resources from the ravages of coal mining. This is important as the area forms part of one of South Africa’s 22 strategic water source areas, which is not only the source of several major rivers that support communities and economic activities downstream, but is also crucial as a water source for Gauteng’s economic hub of Johannesburg and Tshwane. Protecting Strategic Water Source Areas is crucial for South Africa’s water security, and its ability to provide water for people, livelihoods and economic activity, particularly in light of the effects of global warming.
The court hearing is also significant for the fact that the mining company has used this appeal as an opportunity to attack and undermine public interest lawyering. The mining company is not only seeking punitive cost orders against members of the Mabola coalition but also against CER. This has led to seven public interest law organisations joining the matter as friends of the court.
“It is disturbing to witness a private company launch an attack on the longstanding and proud tradition of public interest lawyering in South Africa,” says Bobby Peek, director of groundWork.
“But it is encouraging to see how a small group of motivated civil society organisations can work together for the long-term economic interests and water security of future generations, particularly in light of the coming impacts of climate change.”
Protecting water resources for future generations
On 7 July 2016, the Director-General in the Department of Water and Sanitation granted a water use licence for the proposed new coal mine, authorising various water uses under the National Water Act to enable it to proceed with coal mining. On 22 May 2019, the Water Tribunal dismissed members of the Mabola coalition’s appeal against the Director-General’s decision.
“Our clients are appealing against the decision of the Water Tribunal and against the granting of the water use licence in order to protect the water resources of this area in recognition of the fact that long-term water security is a human rights issue,” says CER attorney Tarisai Mugunyani.
“This appeal, the latest in a long line of legal battles fought by the Mabola coalition, is testament to the importance of the Mabola Protected Environment. This area was proclaimed a protected environment in 2014 and has been recognised by almost all sectors of local and national government as critically important both ecologically and in terms of ensuring sensitive and sustainable economic development in the future,” says Yolan Friedman, CEO of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
Safeguarding the integrity of the Mabola Protected Environment
Both the recognition of the area as a Strategic Water Source Area and its declaration as a Protected Area were the result of more than a decade of government supported and funded research and planning by the Department of Water and Sanitation, the Department of Environmental Affairs, and a number of government agencies like the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Water Research Commission.
“We should be expanding, not risking protected areas in South Africa, particularly in light of the urgent need to adapt to climate impacts,” says CER attorney Tatenda Muponde.
The environmental problems that coal mining in the protected area would cause are well-documented and acknowledged by the mine’s own research.
“The mine’s social and labour plan notes that coal mining will generate dust, noxious gases and smoke, noise, vibrations, traffic, and the ‘contamination of surface and groundwater on downstream water users’. These environmental harms will be imposed on local community members, potentially damaging their health, and threatening their long-term means of subsistence livelihoods and employment. The water use licence was issued even though the mine did not adequately assess the mine’s impacts on downstream water users,” Muponde says.
“The mine’s proponents counter this reality by drawing attention to the economic opportunities that the proposed mine would supposedly create. However, even they make clear that very few of the jobs they promise would go to people local to the area,” says Peek.
“This corresponds with the history of mining in South Africa where, by and large, local communities do not benefit economically from mining because local people are rarely employed by the industry.”
CER will publish the outcome of the court hearing as soon as the judgment is handed down.
The coalition defending the Mabola Protected Environment comprises the Mining and Environmental Justice Communities Network of South Africa, groundWork, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) and the Bench Marks Foundation.
Read more about the 2021 victory for the Mabola coalition: Constitutional Court dismisses coal mining company’s bid to start mining; and the risks posed by mining in the area: Mining in Mabola: The slow violence of environmental degradation