9 December 2016 at 10:00 am
An Indian mining company, Atha-Africa Ventures (Pty) Ltd (part of the India-based Atha Group), wants to build a coal mine underneath a protected area outside of Wakkerstroom, known as the Mabola Protected Environment. This area was declared protected by the Mpumalanga Environmental MEC in 2014. If this mine goes ahead, it could imperil the water supplies of everyone who depends on the Vaal, the Pongola or the Tugela for their water.
Eight civil society and community organisations have taken up the fight to protect this important water area from the threat of the mine.
Sensitive and strategic water area
The area is a source of three major rivers – the Tugela, the Vaal, and the Pongola – that provide water to a huge number of downstream water users. These users will all be affected if a source of those rivers is compromised.
The area has been classified as one of 21 Strategic Water Source Areas by the South African National Biodiversity Institute, a government body, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in a project supported by government. This means that the area is important for South Africa’s water security.
Strategic Water Source Areas are the 8% of our land that provides more than 50% of our freshwater. South Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought in 30 years, with a state of drought disaster declared in 8 of our 9 provinces, including Mpumalanga.
The Department of Mineral Resources publicly promised to protect the sensitive Wakkerstroom and Chrissiesmeer areas from mining, but has failed to do so.
Atha-Africa’s proposed mine
The Yzermyn mine proposed by Atha-Africa Ventures plans to mine 2.26 megatonnes coal per annum. Atha plans to export most of this coal and it has no other active mining operations in South Africa.
Expert reports show that, if the mine is allowed to proceed, it would dry up the wetlands and springs in the wider area and draw water from underground water resources. There is a high risk that the mine would pollute the streams that feed the rivers originating in the area. Seepage of acid mine drainage from the mine into the freshwater system is likely, decades after mining has ceased and the company has left the area.
“There is overwhelming evidence that most of the damage to this sensitive freshwater environment cannot be mitigated and would therefore be irreversible,” says Samukelisiwe Nguni of WWF South Africa, which has been working for the protection of the Mpumalanga grasslands for many years.
Destroying local jobs
According to Atha’s own socio-economic specialist report, the 60 “skilled” jobs estimated to be created for the mine’s construction will not be sourced locally, and management staff will come from Atha’s operations in India. According to the report, “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.” Skilled positions for the operational phase are likely to be drawn from outside the local area.
In contrast, the area employs many people in agriculture and in a growing – and sustainable – nature-based tourism sector. Many tourists visit Wakkerstroom and its surrounds every year because of its natural beauty, and particularly its birdlife. “If the water is polluted, those attractions will come to an end. Moreover, a constant stream of noisy, dusty coal trucks will do enormous damage of Wakkerstroom’s peaceful character,” says Mauritz de Bruin of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
“In mining towns all over Mpumalanga we have seen big mining companies move in, extract the coal as fast as possible without employing more than a handful of local people, while creating an enormous amount of dust and noise through blasting and transport. These companies leave local communities with polluted water and poor air quality that causes respiratory diseases and other ill health. We cannot stand by and let this happen to the communities living in and around Wakkerstroom”, says Robby Mokgalaka from environmental justice organisation groundWork.
The non-profit organisations that are challenging the mine are Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of SA, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, BirdLife South Africa, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Bench Marks Foundation, the Association for Water and Rural Development, and groundWork.
In September 2015, these organisations instituted High Court proceedings to set aside the mining right granted to Atha by the Department of Mineral Resources. They have also appealed all environmental approvals granted to the mine, and will shortly launch an appeal of the water use licence granted to Atha.
“Given the importance of this area not only to Wakkerstroom residents, but to downstream water users, particularly when we are in the middle of the worst drought in 30 years, this group is prepared to fight every aspect of this mine, even if it takes years to do so, and even if we have to take this to the Constitutional Court. Allowing a mine inside a declared protected area would also set a frightening precedent for protected areas all over South Africa, including our national parks.” says Melissa Fourie of the Centre for Environmental Rights, the non-profit lawyers representing the organisations.