Water News

Communities left up the creek with dirty water

Written by  Saturday, 28 February 2015 22:29
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The Klip River brings disease but, like many other water sources, it is still not being tested.

The brown and white Nguni cow can barely lift her head. Her jaundiced eye watches us through the green grass as we approach, a mess of yellow liquid oozing out of the socket. The congealed mess where the other eye should be is covered in flies. Her skin clings to her ribs, as if wrapped over hollow lattice. 

“She spent too much time in the river. She used to love sitting in the water,” says Peter Khumalo, pointing at the deep trench cut by the turbulent Klip River. The water has a white froth and is dirty grey. “Then she started getting sick. It happens to all the cows that spend too much time near the water.”
He employs a herder to keep the cows away from the Klip, except when they leave the river’s grass-covered floodplain and descend the 2m river bank for water.
Walking back through the veld to his piggery, the broad-shouldered Khumalo cannot resist smiling when he talks about his operation. “I started with a handful of pigs and learnt from others. Now I have 100.”
His sties lie between Lenasia and Thembelihle, to the south of Soweto. The rambling walkways and pens are only 400m from the Klip, but he tries to get most of his water from a solitary tap in his yard. This often dries up and he has to fill buckets from the river. “We know the water makes the animals sick, but when there is no water there is no choice.”
Walking through a thin layer of mud and faeces in heavy boots, he stops at an emaciated calf. Lying in a cool corner, it does not acknowledge us. “That one is the calf of the sick one outside,” he says while moving some bread lumps closer to her with his foot. These are chopped up loaves of white bread that he stores in ceramic baths. “She never had a chance,” he says, because the mother drinking the water poisoned her unborn calf.

Supplements and medication

To get the pigs and cattle to market – a 120kg pig sells for R2 200 – he has to buy supplements and medication to fortify them against getting sick. “Having the milky water means so much more in costs and your animals just die when they are young,” he says, taking his camouflage-coloured baseball cap to wave off a mass of flies around some pink piglets.
When he tries to report the problem to thae council and the municipality, he is asked why he has animals in the first place. Khumalo does not have a permit to farm. “Entrepreneurship is just not encouraged. People say when you are hungry you steal, but when you are hungry you should work harder.”
His piggery is a few kilometres downriver of the Olifantsvlei wastewater treatment works, which feeds the wetland which is the source of the Klip River. The Shembe church and other churches use the water in ceremonies, he says.
A green band of grass and willows traces the Klip’s path under the N1 as it heads south to Bloemfontein, before flowing into the Vaal River below the Vaal Dam. The dam supplies most of the drinking water for Gauteng and the rivers are the de facto supply for people who have water infrastructure but it does not work. This informal water is not being tested by the department of water affairs, even though it is one of its mandated tasks. Several sources said the department had cancelled the contract with the laboratory testing the water. It has not confirmed this, even when asked questions in water forums and meetings. It would also not officially confirm this to the Mail & Guardian and did not respond to questions. A senior official at Gauteng water affairs did, however, say “the high cost” of testing had necessitated cancelling the previous contract. A new one was being delayed because of “endless red tape” in government procurement processes.
This is a complete failure in planning, says Mariette Liefferink of the nongovernmental Federation for a Sustainable Environment. A tall woman with intensely blonde hair, she arrives at any meeting wheeling a bag of documents to support her case. “Whenever we ask for water quality tests, we are either told they are not available, or we are given ones from 2013.” This is when the contract was cancelled, she says. Her speciality in the last decade has been raising awareness about acid mine drainage and water issues in the West Rand of Gauteng. “What has happened is that the department has externalised the costs of testing to civil society.”
She sits on dozens of water forums and catchment agencies and says information about water quality has dried up. “Where Rand Water is working there is information, but outside of that there is no testing, so we have no way of knowing what is in the water on a consistent scale.”

Baptisms

The worst affected are people who have no clean source of water – especially for their cattle – and those using water for baptisms, she says. “People are constantly using the water and we know it makes them sick, but there is a constant denial from government.” To compound the problem, there are few other groups doing province-wide testing on water quality. The province’s rivers are affected by a combination of dirty water from mines, wastewater treatment plants and human pollution, she says. “There are so many sources of pollution that it is irresponsible to not test every single water source so we can trace any problems back to their source.”
Professor Frank Winde, chair of geography at North-West University, has spent his career studying the effect of acid mine drainage on river systems in the area. His interest is personal, as the Wonderfonteinspruit flows from an area of intense acid drainage towards his campus in Potchefstroom. It is one of the rivers not being tested and he has found “extremely large volumes of uranium” in river water all along the spruit. At some points these are 1 000 times above the recommended levels set by the World Health Organisation. This classifies uranium – and the other heavy metals released by mining – as being toxic to human beings. These damage the functioning of the brain, attack the structure of DNA and are serious endocrine disruptors, it says.
Heavy metals affect people’s health in the long term, but the water coming from faulty wastewater plants makes people immediately sick. In numerous visits to communities throughout Gauteng over the course of three years, the M&G found that it is normal for residents outside the city centre to rely on informal water sources. These tended to make them sick. The last Green Drop Report on the quality of wastewater works – a new one has been delayed by two years – found that works in the province were running beyond capacity and, as a result, sometimes released untreated water. The Olifantsvlei plant upriver of Khumalo’s piggery passed the Green Drop because of its operational plans, but was rated as “vulnerable” to failure because it was running at 110% capacity.
Rand Water runs three laboratories in Gauteng which it says test the quality in water treatment works and effluent coming out of wastewater plants. The City of Johannesburg says: “The streams and rivers in the city are regularly sampled by the city’s regional environmental health staff.” They report back to the City, which acts if there are problems in water quality. An official at Rand Water says their tests are presented at the appropriate forums and are kept up to date. Beyond that, water is the responsibility of the national department of water.
For Khumalo the pig farmer, this means he can’t complain about dirty water. Nobody will tell him what is wrong. “If we had tests we could force change but we are told they do not exist.”

MINING

Notification of the Withdrawal of the Application of an Amendment of the Environmental Authorisation and Environmental Management Programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining Operation in Free State

The concerted efforts and submissions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the Applicant and its appointed Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) by the Protect Vaal Eden Committee, Vaal Eden community, and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have resulted in the withdrawal of the application of an amendment of the environmental authorisation and environmental management programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining operation adjacent to the Vaal River.  The EAP was notified by the DMRE that further specialist studies would be required to determine the impact the application for a screening plant and process would have on the environment and that a Regulation 31 amendment process, which involves a public participation process, must be undertaken.  The FSE welcomes the DMRE’s notification. Notification letter attached for download

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Mining activists in SA face death threats, intimidation and harassment - report

SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

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