South Africa: The Impacts of Coal Extraction

Gathering water in the Limpopo River Basin
Gathering water in the Limpopo River Basin

Source: Pambazuka

Significant developments in the energy sector are underway in [South Africa’s] western Limpopo because of the extensive coal resources in that region. Besides the South African electricity company Eskom’s massive Medupi power station, near the existing Matimba power station, there are several other mega-projects in the pipeline. The question is whether these are sustainable or in some cases, even viable.

Other developments in the area include expanding the massive Exxaro Grootgeluk mine, which supplies Matimba and Medupi, as well as Sasol’s plans for the Mafutha coal to oil mega-project, presently shelved because of its massive carbon emissions. Further to the northeast of this massive energy complex lie other coal mining projects like the controversial Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL) Makhado and Vele projects.

Against the background chatter about nationalisation and environmental sustainability, South Africa needs to carefully consider the continued development of its vast mineral resources. While our national wealth has historically been underpinned by mineral extraction, the question is not only how we can continue to extract this wealth with the broadest social benefit, but perhaps more importantly, how we can do so without destroying the very systems we rely on to sustain us.

Nowhere in South Africa are these issues more apparent than in western Limpopo, a region mired in poverty and plagued by water scarcity. The biggest single constraint to the exploitation of these coal resources is the lack of water in the region.

West Limpopo is the most water stressed region of the country if this is measured using the globally accepted method of ‘water crowding’, which considers the number of people against the available water supply. A water-crowding index in excess of 2000 is considered environmentally and socially unstable. The index in Limpopo was already at 4219 a decade ago. The problem has worsened since then.

Against this reality there are massive pressures to develop the huge coal resource in western Limpopo, estimated to contain nearly half our national coal reserve. On the one hand the state wishes to pursue their neo-liberal job creation model. On the other, mining investors see massive opportunities in the region.

The reality is that coal mining produces very few direct or indirect jobs because of its mechanised nature. It also displaces other more sustainable work and livelihood opportunities, as it is a highly mechanised process. Coal extraction can place future economic activity in the area at permanent risk.

To place the precarious water supply situation in perspective it is worth considering that the existing water supply is insufficient to meet the demands of Medupi when it is fully commissioned. In order to meet future demand, water will be transferred from the already stressed and seriously polluted Crocodile River, downstream of the Hartebeespoort dam, to the Mokolo catchment, which feeds Matimba and Medupi power stations.

This has serious implications for the comparatively pristine Mokolo. Recent CSIR-led research found a rare colonial protozoan, never before recorded either in Africa or in a river, during 2008. This organism is extremely sensitive to heavy metals and other contamination. An un-described fish species was also found. Should the water transfer scheme go ahead, these and other novel organisms may disappear forever, before they are understood or studied.

But more importantly, what is to be the fate of Limpopo residents already burdened by water stress? How are they to exist, let alone thrive, if these massive energy projects are permitted to abstract and pollute the little available water in the area?

The implications are dire and water resource experts have noted this could create conditions ripe for mass social unrest and even genocide, as frustrations are redirected at those projected as responsible for their situation.

Local residents are becoming increasingly aware of the implications of large-scale mineral extraction and its long-term consequences for the region. The CoAL project to mine valuable coking coal at its Makhado project has run into powerful local resistance from a broad coalition of opponents.

Even if sufficient water were to be found, there remains a strong and united opposition from divergent backgrounds. The real questions revolve around the sustainability of the project.

Moses Madau, of Dzomo la Mupo, a local environmental group, summed up the general feeling when he said that there was deep resentment and concern at the alleged statement by CoAL at a recent meeting that the scarcity of water would not affect this generation, but only the coming generations. This is the very definition of unsustainable.

This concern was echoed by the Chair of the Soutpansberg Agricultural Union, Stephan Hoffman, who said the impact of Makhado on this fragile environment, would undermine the ability of his children to survive in this barren and harsh land.

There are also profound concerns around the impact of this project on the sacred sites and traditional culture of this area. Given that the Venda comprise some of the most ancient of settled communities in the region, who have lived here for at least a millennium and possibly far longer, there are innumerable graves, shrines and other sacred artefacts which stand to be disturbed.

These concerns are summarised in a critique of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by the London based NGO Gaia, which notes the consistent use of the description of the impacts as “long term but temporary,” indicating an intrinsic failure to recognise the real consequences of this project on this fragile environment.

Underlying these collective concerns on the impacts of the Makhado coal mine, Liz Hosken of Gaia states that the cumulative impact of this project, should it be permitted, would amount to ecocide – the deliberate destruction of the natural environment. The implications are serious for both investors and local stakeholders.

CoAL investors have been quite jittery about the prospects for the company, indicated by the decline to a fifth of its share value of two years ago. Its meetings in London have been picketed and shareholders have been made aware of the inherent risks associated with the Makahdo project and its future prospects.

A major shortcoming of the EIA process is that it does not consider the cumulative impacts of a project – it only examines each impact in isolation. Yet the cumulative impacts of this mine, on water, land, farming and the ability of humans and wildlife to survive in this area could in fact amount to ecocide.

The perceptions of those involved in interrogating the EIA are divergent. Some groups appear fairly satisfied; others feel that the process has been exclusive and insufficient. This is another major shortcoming of existing environmental regulation, where local communities, which stand to be most affected, have neither the means nor the expertise to deal with expert inputs in what is a demanding bureaucratic process.

CoAL has previously attracted controversy for its Vele mine near the Mapungubwe UNESCO heritage site, which has recently been granted permission to proceed. The major stumbling block for Vele was access to water, which has now been granted from the already stressed Limpopo River. Water availability is a far greater impediment to the Makhado mine’s development.

The reality is that there is insufficient water in the area to enable mining on the scale demanded by CoAL and that would also ensure all social and ecological needs are met. Even transferring water from other river basins is not a suitable long-term solution; it is simply borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

Emerging understanding of water recirculation within water basins such as the Limpopo further emphasises the scale of the problem. The old thinking was that moisture was introduced into rainfall regions mainly from adjacent oceanic evaporation. This has been revised and studies by experts like R.J. van der Ent and others show that much of the rainfall within certain basins emanates instead from within that basin or from adjacent areas. This natural recycling, driven by evaporation and plant transpiration is thought to provide a significant amount of the moisture to the arid Limpopo region.

If the hydrological cycle is impacted in the area – as is inevitable should large-scale coal extraction be permitted – there is real potential for serious negative repercussions on the long-term sustainability of the area.

In the case of projects like Makhado consideration must be given to alternative ways of working and living within this delicate and stressed environment. As noted earlier, the water-crowding index of the region has serious implications as far as social stability is concerned.

Talk of using mining income to kick-start other employment opportunities overlooks the countervailing argument that there is no reason to not pursue similar employment and living opportunities without mining and its negative consequences. While mining is touted as a financial driver to kick-start such projects, if the legacy of mining is environmental and social disruption, then such arguments are clearly based on unsound premises.

Very few mines in South Africa have ever been issued with a mine closure certificate. Instead there are numerous avoidance practices that enable companies, which have exploited mineral wealth, to evade responsibility once the area is mined out. The legacy of acid mine drainage left by Anglo American on the Highveld and the social and ecological disruption of Namaqualand by DeBeers are two of many such examples of avoidance for taking complete responsibility for the impacts of mining.

Affected communities usually lack the economic or legal clout to enforce promises made during mining applications. Neither are they able to afford proper monitoring of the mining process and closure. Look no further than the toxic legacy of asbestos mining across vast tracts of the Northern Cape.

Appeals to nationalise our mineral resources also carry serious risks. These do not only revolve around the threat to external investment but equally apply to the weakening of the existing (flawed) EIA and mine closure and rehabilitation process. The fact is that for a state managed environmental regulatory system to assume and enforce control over the behaviour of state-owned mining companies would create an almost inevitable recipe for inter-departmental conflict. This would be exacerbated by the reluctance of the state to engage in legal action against itself.

There is already huge tension around the EIA process, which for mining is controlled by the National Department of Minerals and Energy, while all other aspects of EIAs are overseen by Provincial level Environmental Management Departments. Further state involvement in this already fraught arena would raise the spectre of diminished control over mining, as short-term job creation is pursued at the cost of long-term sustainability.

There are other proven and practical ways to shift away from reliance on extractive industries as the foundation of capital and job creation. For instance, agro-ecological farming methods provide proven improved prospects of food and financial security for local communities. Craft projects are far more likely to succeed in areas where the natural resources to supply raw materials are undisturbed, while also attracting tourism to these unspoiled, rather than “rehabilitated” areas.

While it is easy to project a coalmine contributing x amount to the economy over y number of years, such simplistic analyses fail to properly calculate the long-term economic benefits of sustainable land use. In the final analysis there is very little incentive for extractive industries to do a proper job of rehabilitation. Given the dismal track record, who will hold the beneficiaries of mining to account?

Those who wish to invest in mineral extraction in fragile environments must weigh up the real implications. These look beyond short-term profitability and include full cost, triple bottom line accounting of rehabilitation of all aspects of the damage, if it can actually be rehabilitated. But as the EIA for Makhado states, “Open cast mining results in total destruction of the various facets of the existing soils, land capability and land use.” Sure there may be mitigation but mitigatory process are at best a band-aid approach and at worst a sop to sensitive investors.

The final irony is that climate change stands to increase the temperature of this region by up to six degrees by the end of this century. Injecting more coal into the mix simply adds insult to injury.

* Glenn Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society.
* This article was first published by South African Civil Society Information Service.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

Photo by Water and Food via Flickr