Conflict surrounds the go-ahead given by government for a coal mine to be established near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga as mining interests are pitted against those of environmentalists campaigning for the preservation of South Africa’s scarce water resources.
With the mine having been given the green light, more requests to mine in sensitive water catchment areas will follow, critics warn.
This week, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa signed off her approval for the establishment of Yzermyn mine by Indian company Atha-Africa Ventures.
Yzermyn will be located in the Mabola Protected Environment (MPE), which was classified as a protected water area 18 months ago by provincial authorities and other stakeholders, including WWF SA and the CSIR.
The underground mine plans to produce 2.26 million tons of coal annually, all of which will be exported.
Activists opposing the mine had hoped that Molewa would veto the mine.
In explaining her decision, Molewa said she had taken into account that all authorities before her had approved the establishment of the mine.
“The mining right will not compromise the management objectives of the MPE management plan,” she added.
Molewa said the environmental impact assessment report about the mine’s establishment stated that any detrimental effect on the area could be mitigated.
Oubaas Malan, chairperson of the Mabola landowners’ association, said the community was shocked and disappointed that Molewa had sided with the mine.
“We had heard that the minister was not in favour of the mine, but now she has signed her approval,” he said.
“We are extremely worried about the pollution this mine will bring to our water sources. We will take up this fight for the sake of our future.”
He said job creation had been dangled as a carrot and that expectations were high that the mine would bring new jobs to the Wakkerstroom community. “But we all know that most of the jobs at the mine will be for skilled outsiders.”
Atha-Africa lists the Bashubile Trust as its BEE partner, which has been linked to relatives of President Jacob Zuma.
While it plans to proceed with mining as soon as possible, the Centre for Environmental Rights, a not-for-profit environmental rights law clinic, is opposing this.
Melissa Fourie, executive director of the centre, said environmentalists were preparing an interdict to stop the mine, adding that the Mabola case set a dangerous precedent and the fight would be taken to the Constitutional Court if necessary.
“If we open the door on this, we are opening the floodgates,” she warned.
Fourie called the Mabola case “a calamity” because the facts supporting a mining ban were so strong.
“This is a protected area, generating water for our economy. If mining is allowed here, it will be difficult to resist future applications in other similar areas.
“We know of other applications waiting in the wings.”
Fourie said allowing mining in critical water catchment areas was akin to suicide for South Africa, especially since it was currently in the throes of a water crisis – just 8% of the land area provides 50% of the country’s surface water.
This 8% is made up of 22 water catchment and biodiverse areas in five provinces.
These areas contain the country’s most critical, strategic natural resources.
They supply 70% of our irrigation water, support 60% of the population, and underpin 67% of national economic activity and supply. Mabola is the water source of three major rivers: the Tugela, Vaal and Pongola.
But Atha-Africa said the mine would create 500 direct jobs and about 2 000 indirectly.
Praveer Tripathi, senior vice-president of Atha-Africa, said the company’s scientific studies indicated it would be able to mitigate the concerns that had alarmed environmentalists.
The department of mineral resources agreed, but did not respond to questions this week.
Morné du Plessis, CEO of WWF SA, said: “That an incompatible activity such as coal mining has been given the go-ahead is a worrying turn of events which does not bode well for other protected areas.
“This is … short-sighted decision making that has the consequence of short-changing society. Coal mining in strategic water-source areas is not only contrary to sound scientific advice, but also to basic common sense.”
Fourie said this sign-off by Molewa was the latest in a series of “feeble” decisions by government.
The environmental rights centre instituted judicial review proceedings against the granting of these mining rights in September last year, after Atha-Africa was granted a mining right in September 2014 and an environmental licence by the Mpumalanga government in June 2016.
Atha-Africa was then granted mining licence by the mineral resources department as well as a water-use licence by the department of water affairs and sanitation.
“Eventually, the decision will be set aside because it goes against South Africa’s environmental laws. But lots of money will have to be spent to ensure that the decisions are reversed,” said Fourie.