Without clean water, there is no dignity. And that’s why for Janet Love the acid mine drainage (AMD) crisis on the Witwatersrand’s goldfields centres on the preservation of human rights.
Alternative treatment options for acid mine drainage sought
“If people don’t have fresh water…or if their water is so insufficient that it makes growing their crops impossible, what then is the possibility of dignity?” asks Love, a commissioner at the SA Human Rights Commission and national director of the Legal Resources Centre.
This week, the commission ran a national workshop in Joburg on human rights and AMD, pushing for greater co-operation between government departments, research institutions and universities, business and civil society groups to tackle the problem.
It wants alternative treatment options explored for the region’s AMD problem, a toxic legacy of the city’s mining past, first warned about decades ago. If left unchecked, it has been predicted that an estimated 160 million litres of contaminated water will spill into surrounding waterways every day from the region’s mining basins.
The commission is worried about the flow of poisoned water into surface and groundwater systems and the “devastating consequences” of AMD on agriculture, rivers and the potential impacts on human health, the destruction of wildlife and ecosystems and heritage sites like the Cradle of Humankind.
It is concerned the government’s short-term action plan to deal with AMD by pumping and partially treating the underground water by neutralising its acidity and removing heavy metals does not adequately address the problem, and it wonders if the state budget of more than R400 million is sufficient.
The Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority is implementing the emergency and short-term projects on the Eastern, Central and Western mining basins, but the concern is that neutralisation will not remove the high levels of sulphates entering watercourses, which will require dilution from costly and scarce fresh water source to mitigate the impact.
At best, neutralisation will reduce the sulphate loads to 2500mg per litre – the regulatory limit is 600mg/l – and the water remains unfit for any use.
“The issue was rushed in a manner that suggests we haven’t known about it,” Love suggests.
“We felt well placed to bring parties together to recognise the problem is not small, simple or easy.”
The management of potential AMD is unforgiving: it must be done properly, says the commission. A document it is circulating notes how AMD is a vast complex problem of national importance and how on the West Rand, in particular, where the decant of AMD is ongoing, “any concerned party has the right to see the chosen potion of 2 000mg/litre for three years at 60ML per day as pollution and such quality of water as a slow poison.”
“Predominantly, we need a medical evaluation in respect to regular human, animal and plant consumption of the water intended for release into Tweelopiespruit. The core of these enquiries has been whether local communities and livestock can drink water with 2 00mg /litres sulphides for several decades without any harm.”
Craig Sheridan, a chemical engineer at wits University, says any long term solution to AMd needs to be economically, environmentally and socially sound.
“In Gauteng there is a lot of uranium in the AMD. What are those risks? How long can a person be exposed to uranium”, Sheridan asked.
Judith Taylor, of Earthlife Africa, agrees that the health impacts are being overlooked.
“What we’re not looking at is the incredible impact of this pollution on human health, and the growing loss of life, below the age of five, to diarrhoea on the entire Vaal system. Water is life, dirty water is death,” Taylor said.