Flagrant coal mining threatens food security

2012-05-26 12:27

Unbridled coal mining in Mpumalanga is putting food security under threat as 54%of the province’s surface area may be turned into wasteland.

Coal is mined in the province’s Highveld region, which is South Africa’s leading producer of soya beans (51%), maize (24%) and dry beans (23%). Agricultural production in the province contributes 3.3% to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 12% employment.

The region is home to these towns: Witbank, Middelburg, Belfast, Ermelo, Carolina, Piet Retief, Standerton, Bethal, Volksrust, Balfour and Delmas. It is also an industrial hub.

AgriSA economist Dawie Maree said rehabilitated mining land would not have the same agricultural potential as before, adding that there was virtually no consideration of food security when mining permits were granted.

“Agricultural issues and high potential production regions that contribute towards food security are not taken into account when mining or prospecting licences are considered.

“The department of agriculture should play an active role in the decision making on environmental issues,” said Maree.

“The Highveld is a very important region in the production of maize and soya beans. It is one of the areas with the biggest potential for maize production due to the good soils and higher rainfall than the western parts of the country.”

More than 80% of South Africa’s coal meant for power generation and the export market is extracted from this region.

There are about 60 mines that are currently operating on 13% of river catchments and productive farms.

Pending mining permits and prospecting applications sitting with the department of mineral resources indicate that if they were granted, about 80% of the region’s land surface area could be given away to mines.

Environmentalists have also warned that more of the towns in the province were at risk of having undrinkable water if coal mining remained uncontrolled in the Highveld as activity will exacerbate the situation on river catchments such as the Olifants, Vaal, Usutu and the Upper Komati.

Carolina residents are already suffering the consequences of acid mining drainage and haven’t been using tap water for the past four months.

This follows laboratory studies indicating that water was contaminated with high levels of sulphate, aluminium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, lead, iron, zinc, copper and nickel.

And if consumed, this will lead to chronic health problems for the residents.

Environmentalists add that the effects of polluted water will be felt in the next 50 years in most of the local towns and the productive farms due to mining on river catchments and fertile soil.

Research done by Professor Terence McCarthy of the University of Witwatersrand’s geosciences department and environmental activist Dr Koos Pretorius indicates that acid levels above acceptable quantities for human consumption have already been recorded in the Witbank and Middelburg dams.

The department of water affairs added that water at the Loskop dam was also contaminated as well as in rivers such as Olifants, Boesmanspruit, Klein Olifants, Upper Komati and Wilge.

Dr Pretorius, who also farms in Belfast, said: “We shouldn’t be mining high-potential areas at all as there will be no suitable water for household use, agriculture and industries.”

He added: “Carolina hasn’t had water for four months and I can tell you that Belfast will be next.

Ermelo and Breyten will soon follow because of mining that is taking place in the catchment areas there.”

McCarthy and Dr Pretorius’s research warns that the entire region could become a “total wasteland once the coal reserves had been fully exploited and mining had ceased”.

It points out that underground and river water will be undrinkable, and aquatic life will be reduced to a minimum as has been the case in parts of Witbank already.

“Land will be sterilised due to acidification of soils. This scenario might seem melodramatic and emotive, but there is no system either in place or planned to prevent this,” the research shows.

“The future costs of water purification will be massive, far greater than any mitigation fund could cover, and these will have to be borne by the state.”

Deon Nel, head of the biodiversity unit at WWF South Africa, said the Carolina issue was just the tip of the iceberg. WWF campaigns for the protection of fresh water sources.

“The whole Ekangala grasslands area – which is at the corner of Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga – is under application for prospecting rights.

“This is a very important area from the hydrological point of view as it is where various water systems meet and supply fresh water to the rest of the country.”

Zingaphi Jakuja, spokesperson for the mineral resources ministry, was unable to give detailed information on mining applications in the Highveld.

McCarthy proposes that a moratorium on new mining operations should be imposed to curb the damage in the Highveld river system.

Speaking for the water affairs ministry, Linda Page said: “If precautions and regulatory functions are not done, then coal mining can be a threat to the suitability of water for all water users in catchments.”

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