Water News

'We have to change the way we think about water'

Written by  MARA KARDAS-NELSON - M&G Sunday, 14 November 2010 07:34
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"Among the many things that I learnt as president was the centrality of water in the social, political and economic affairs of the country, the continent and the world." These words were spoken by former president Nelson Mandela at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, 2002.

Despite its importance to development, human health, a thriving economy and a sustainable environment, the quality of South Africa's water is fast degrading. Already considered water stressed, the country is pegged to be water scarce by 2025. Naturally a semi-arid nation and the 30th driest country in the world, minimal water resources are being stretched by rising demands from an increasing population and growing industry, and further harmed by poor maintenance of human, agricultural, and industrial waste.

Peter Ashton of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has been studying South Africa's water for over 40 years. "The water in many of the country's dams is becoming more enriched with ... sewage, industrial waste, mining waste, agricultural return flows, garbage, and seepage from waste dumps, which is slowly, gradually, building up over time," he said. "That makes it more and more difficult for water treatment companies to take raw water, treat it, and supply it to for people to drink or industries to use. While the volume of water per person is coming down, the quality of that water per person is becoming [worse]."

Currently, South Africa is one of the most heavily dammed countries in the world, and the city of Johannesburg estimates that the city may be the only one in the world not created because its close proximity to a natural waterway. Its water scarcity makes it extremely reliant on dams and increasingly upon the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. By 1998, all of the country's water resources were being used at full capacity.

Ashton considers acid-mine drainage (AMD) to be "one of the greatest threats to South Africa's water" in part because the country's waterways are already heavily burdened. "[Although] it's always been a threat, we've been fortunate in the past that there's been a relatively high buffering capacity in the water. Once that's exhausted [through other contamination], you start to see the acid more visible and travelling further."

Many of South Africa's major water bodies have been or will be impacted by AMD. Of main concern is the Vaal barrage system, which is responsible for supplying a significant amount of South Africa's water: 10-million people draw from the Vaal Dam every day. Already affected by mine waste and other industrial and human pollutants, the barrage is further threatened by Aurora Empowerment System's partial treatment of the Eastern Basin AMD. The cash-strapped mine is the so-called "last man standing" in the basin, pumping water contaminated by operations that have now closed.

Despite being issued a government directive requiring it to pump and treat water, Aurora only partially treats 30-50 megalitres of the 108mL required each day, with the rest being released directly into the barrage.

Unholy mix

Increasing coal-mining activity in Mpumalanga poses another threat to the Vaal. "[New mines] are right at the top end [of the river]," explains Ashton. "You'll end up with a lake that is just solid sulfuric acid, which will contaminate the ground water, and the ground water is what feeds our rivers during the dry season." A shift in mining practices could ensure that the Vaal isn't heavily affected, but Ashton is skeptical. "The tendency that I've seen is that business is usual in mining," he says.

Little is known about the potential effects stemming from the mixing of AMD and already contaminated water. According to Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist at the University of Stellenbosch, "there is total ignorance about what is going to happen when [mine] water hits the other problem we have, which is sewage-laden water. What the toxic compounds in the mine drainage will do to the sewage and what resultant health effects in the short term and long term will come from this unholy mix, nobody knows," she says


Minister Barbara Creecy's Decision on Springs Mine Hailed

NEWS / 25 OCTOBER 2019, 10:04PM / SHEREE BEGA A decision by the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs setting aside the environmental approval for a planned open-cast coal mine on the East Rand has been hailed as "excellent" for the region. In her decision on October 20, Minister Barbara Creecy stated that it was vital that commercial agriculture be safeguarded in the Springs/Nigel area. Local resident, business and environmental groups had appealed the Department of Mineral Resources' (DMR) approval of the integrated environmental authorisation for the proposed Palmietkuilen coal mine in March this year. Creecy has now upheld their appeal, setting aside the DMR's decision. The Grootvaly Blesbokspruit Conservation Trust, the Largo and Groovaly AH Residents and Businesses, Aston Lake Community and the Springs Nigel branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA, were among the organisations who had brought seven appeals against the project. In August 2016, Anglo Operations, on behalf of Canyon Coal, applied to build the open-pit coal mine. The project is anticipated to have a life of mine of 47 years, with the anticipated production of 2 400 000 tons of coal per year to supply local and international markets. The proposed mine is upstream of the Blesbokspruit, which feeds the Marievale Bird Sanctuary in Springs and flows into the Vaal. It is a designated a Ramsar wetland of international importance. In her appeal decision, Creecy notes how Hugo Arthur de Koningh, the second appellant in the matter, argued that agricultural land "has to disappear for the sake of economic development" and expressed concern that "food security became more threatened". Creecy agreed."While I am aware of the social benefits of the proposed mining, I find that such does not outweigh the need to to protect and preserve the prime agricultural land. "The said area has been utilised for agricultural activities for generations and can go on to be used for such provided soil disturbances are avoided." "One of the biggest threats to the retention of productive agricultural land is the conflict between agriculture and mining land uses. With the matter at hand, I find that it is vital to preserve the current land use, mainly commercial agriculture," Creecy said. "This is excellent news for Springs and the farmers of our area and our thanks to all who participated in the seven appeals that were lodged," said the attorney in the case, Philip De Jager. "I would, however, point out that the applicant is entitled to have this decision judicially reviewed."  Local environmentalist Stan Madden, the "father of the Blesbokspruit", welcomed Creecy's decision. "I was one of the group of organisations (Springs-Nigel branch of Wessa) that were against the environmental authorisation in the Palmietkuilen area. "I and others are very pleased with the Minister's decision not to grant this authorisation. It does give a little hope for the future of this sensitive wetland and agricultural heartland, Madden said. Mariette Liefferink, the CEO of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said it was "heartened" by Creecy's decision to uphold the appeal by interested and affected parties and to set aside the decision by the DMR. "It demonstrates the power of active citizenry to ensure that development is ecological sustainable and economically justifiable. "With South Africa being a water scarce country, with a rapid population growth that consumes a substantial amount of food and water, and vulnerable to the potential impacts of climate change and climate variability, the proposed open cast coal mine would have compromised sustainability and would have exceeded environmental tipping points," she said. In their appeals, residents cited how an objection by the then Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries against the loss of high agricultural land was ignored by the DMR. On September 25, comments were provided to Creecy by the now Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, indicating that the proposed mining activity is located within a proposed protected agricultural area, which has a priority rating of B. "According to DALRRD, this means that this area is regarded as high potential agricultural land, which should be protected for agricultural production purposes," Creecy noted. The directorate of spatial information management within Creecy's department was requested to do a screening of the proposed mining area, "which confirms that the site comprises mainly very sensitive agricultural areas", she said. The DMR had stated that the impact on agricultural land was considered and assessed and studies had shown how the proposed mining activity "will have minimal and acceptable impacts on food security". The Saturday Star

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