Enshrined in the Constitution is the right to an environment that is harmful to one’s health and wellbeing; and one that is protected for the benefit of present and future generations. This is central to the government’s sustainable development agenda, and also to Commissioner Janet Love’s portfolio on environment, natural resources and rural development
A sound and healthy natural environment enables the enjoyment of other human rights and therefore the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental part of the right to life and to personal dignity.
All over South Africa, children experience the negative effects of environmental degradation, including water shortage, compromised air quality, fisheries depletion, soil erosion, and unsafe management and disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes and products particularly from the extractives industry. Climate change, for instance, is exacerbating many of these negative effects of environmental degradation on human health and wellbeing, and is also causing new ones, including an increase in extreme weather events and an increase in the spread of malaria and other vector borne diseases.
The South Africa Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has identified the need to carry out a number of activities that promote and protect the right of people affected by natural resource issues. One environmental impact that has received attention over the years is that of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD).
AMD poses a risk to the realization of children’s rights of access to food and sufficient water, adequate housing, access to healthcare services, freedom and security, and human dignity.
In South Durban Basin, where air quality is severely compromised from activities of several refineries operating in the area, the SAHRA received complaints about children suffering from respiratory conditions such as asthma and persistent colds and coughs, and general malaise linked to the poor environmental quality in the area. No generalized epidemiological studies have been completed in South Africa on health and mining, but there is a need for urgent study to protect the health rights of the children in those communities.
Meanwhile, in the gold and coal mining regions affected by AMD, children are exposed to a host of environmental issues including toxic mine durst, acidic and radioactive water. The lightly coloured mine durst that covers mine tailings, and the warm acidic water in rivers and streams in AMD areas, present an attractive nuisance for children to play and swim in, oblivious of the toxicity they are exposing themselves to.
The commission also continues to monitor rights issues related to illegal artisanal mining activities. These manual labour activities have been show to impact on children – be it in breaking and grinding the rock, or the chemical extraction of hold ore using mercury. Mercury usage has incredibly serious consequences for human and environmental health. In these illegal mining areas, very young children (including infants on the back of their working mothers) can be exposed to mining dust and chemical hazards when they accompany parents to work sites. Furthermore, a child being roped into these mining activities when they should be in school has a bearing on their education. Lastly, the commission has heard of incidences where non-national minors are involved in illegal artisanal mining. There is no adequate provision made for these children. The quality of the physical environment affects girls’ and boys’ health and wellbeing. Inadequate living standards and degraded environments ultimately impact on the quality of life of children.
A general understanding of environmental preconditions are necessary for realizing childrens’ rights and knowledge about and respect for the natural environment as an integral part of the development of every child.