Diamonds may be for ever, but clean water isn’t. That’s at the heart of a mounting campaign to preserve one of South Africa’s last-remaining pristine river systems from a prospecting bid by mining giant De Beers.
Last month, the firm informed residents of the historical hamlet of Groot Marico, immortalised by author Herman Charles Bosman, that it is seeking environmental authorisation to scour for kimberlite - a rare diamond-bearing rock - in the sensitive catchment of the Groot Marico River, and over large parts of the neighbouring drought-stricken towns of Koster and Swartruggens.
But some environmental and community organisations believe the prospecting right application poses a threat to the integrity of the Groot Marico river - the only perennial river in the North West, which provides water via the international Tswasa Agreement to Gaborone, Groot Marico, numerous farms and game farms including Madikwe, and 80â€‰000 people in traditional communities downstream.
The government has declared the river system, a National Freshwater Priority Area because of its high aquatic biodiversity, endemic fish species and unique features including the dolomitic eye systems that feed it.
That’s why Mmutlwa wa Noko (porcupine quill), a community group, which has the support of traditional communities, and the Marico Action Campaign, and others, are opposed to De Beers’ application, for “humanitarian and ecological” reasons.
“The area of the prospecting licence falls in the heart of the catchment of the river, and falls across the river as well,” says Brian Sheer, of Mmutlwa wa Noko, created in 2010 to protect the river system.
“If you’ve got a water system thousands of people are dependent on, and that is compromised, what would the consequences be?”
Bridget Corrigan, the Source to Sea programme manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, runs six freshwater and coastal conservation projects across southern Africa, including the Marico Catchment Conservation Project, and is “deeply committed” to the protection of this river and the people who rely on it.
“We don’t believe that a resource, such as diamonds, is worth the cost of losing an important and strategic water resource. We can’t drink diamonds or water crops with diamonds. Water is a far more essential and useful resource.”
Since 2010, residents have opposed several prospecting and mining bids, by companies such as African Nickel and Sanral.
“While we understand this is a prospecting application and not a full mining right application - prospecting - comes with environmental impacts.”
De Beers believes local interest groups are “fuelling false fears” in the area with claims of “half-hectare drills” and that “trucks and equipment will greet farmers waking up” should it obtain an exploration licence. “At this stage, our intention is not to mine,” explains Gabisile Simelane, the exploration programme manager for De Beers in South Africa. “Of course, we’re looking for a mine for the future, but we’re at the early stages. We don’t even know if the target we’re chasing will turn into anything.
“There’s definitely something in the geological background and it warrants further investigation... At this stage, we’ll have no impact on the river.”
Environmental consultancy Golder Associates Africa, which produced the draft basic assessment report for De Beers, says the environmental footprint of drilling is limited to less than 0.64ha a site.
It notes “potential impacts of ground and surface water contamination and hydrocarbon spillages”, but Simelane says these are highly unlikely. Her firm is bound by its environmental management programme, she adds.
Jeanne Kemack, of Mmutlwa wa Noko, says: “We’re not anti-mining, but we have to find a solution to work in a sustainable way that won’t have a harmful impact on people later on -Look at the misery in the North West with this drought - people don’t have water to drink.”
Mining would not be the solution to the region’s unemployment crisis because “you can’t potentially destroy a vital source of water for the sake of a job or a mine”, Kemack says.
Although poverty runs deep in Groot Marico, Peter Pefo, a leader from the Koffiekraal community property association, remains uncertain mining is the answer.
“We want mining for our people to work, but we are suffering with water shortages. We need to know how are they (De Beers) going do their work without contaminating our water.”
Plans are under way to proclaim a biosphere reserve in Groot Marico, says Corrigan “and mining would detract significantly from this shared vision for the catchment”.
The catchment is a critical water resource for the North West as the river holds a class A/B eco-status in the upper catchment and is one of the last remaining rivers safe to drink directly from. “The North West has been particularly hard hit (by the drought). There is barely enough water for domestic use and food production and the irrigation dams are at record lows.”
Corrigan adds that a large-scale state catchment rehabilitation programme is under way in the Marico and Koster districts, creating significant numbers of “green economy” jobs for the local community. “Any mining developments could derail the work being done and affect these sustainable livelihoods.”
There is also criticism that Golder started the public participation process in Groot Marico in mid-December “during the annual peak holiday season” but De Beers maintains it issued press notices in early December and this month to organisations, officials and interacted with interest groups.
It extended the date for comment on the draft basic assessment report until Monday. Its public meetings, too, have been well attended, it maintains.
Abdul Mohamed, a third-generation resident of Groot Marico, supports mining activities. “Those who are against it have nothing to lose. But we as the townspeople of Groot Marico have a big problem with unemployment.
“De Beers won’t just block the river off. They’re a big, reputable company and if they do mine here responsibly one day, the people - and De Beers - will benefit.”
Pretoria News Weekend