SA water polluted by mines to be mapped

Cape Town - The Water Research Commission (WRC) has embarked on an extensive study which aims to map surface and underground water currently influenced by mines.

“The atlas will be a significant and timely contribution that can inform the implementation of commitments made in the past two years,” said Dr Jo Burgess, WRC research manager.

According to the WRC, the impacts of the mining industry on aquatic and terrestrial habitats are severe and have a long-term nature.

The atlas, comprising several chapters, will illustrate South Africa's hydrological characteristics and cover topics including water resources and water distribution.

These features will be overlaid with a map  of mining activities in order to understand the areas where water resources and mining collide.

A major impact of mining activity on water sources occurs through acid mine drainage (AMD), where by-products of the mining process interact with water to create acidity with varying levels of toxicity.

According to Consultancy Africa Intelligence, the worst AMD cases are seen in the vicinity of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand. But communities along the Vaal and Limpopo Rivers are also being threatened.  

In a recent incident the Selati River, an important tributary of the Olifants River, was contaminated with highly acidic water after heavy rains caused the overflow of an impoundment dam at Bosveld Phosphate’s fertiliser manufacturing plant in Phalaborwa.

One of the biggest challenges will be to get access to the large amounts of data residing with private consultants and mining companies.

Some of South Africa’s biggest mining operations, including Anglo Platinum and BHP Billiton, have pledged their assistance.

"If we did not have a collegial reference group full of people willing to share whatever data they can, the atlas could not become a reality," Burgess said.

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