Yet that is exactly what has been proposed by Indian-owned mining company Atha-Africa Ventures: a coal mine within a particularly special part of the Mpumalanga grasslands. The 15-year underground mine will yield low-grade coal that Atha says it wants to export or sell to Eskom. Given the state of the coal-export market, and the state of Eskom, this already sounds like a risky proposition. But place that same mine in the Ekangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, in a declared protected area, and a risky financial proposition becomes a national disaster.
All the authorities charged with protecting our water resources, our environment and our protected areas seem to have dropped the ball on this one. It is not unusual for the Department of Mineral Resources to grant mining rights in sensitive environments, and that decision is being challenged in court. But in this case we have seen the Mpumalanga provincial government grant environmental approval, upon which the Department of Water and Sanitation - initially a vociferous opponent of this project - proceeded not only to grant a water-use licence, but also to set aside the suspension of the licence triggered by an appeal by civil society and Mpumalanga Agri, clearing the way for Atha to start mining. Relying on those two disastrous decisions, and ignoring appeals by civil society organisations, Minister of Water and Environment Affairs Edna Molewa - the trustee of our protected areas - for the first time granted approval for commercial mining in a protected area. Even the ANC MPs on the environmental affairs portfolio committee have taken the minister to task for this decision, but she has been unapologetic and defiant.
Jobs are important, and this part of Mpumalanga desperately needs employment, but it is important to look at the facts.
Atha’s report to the authorities claims the mine will generate more than 500 jobs once it is fully operational, but it does not guarantee that these jobs will be for local people. The report states “there is unlikely to be significant opportunities for the local population to be employed during the construction phase, and the opportunities are likely to be temporary”, and there will be a “limited number of unskilled, semi-skilled employment opportunities”. The Atha report states that the 60 “skilled” jobs it estimates will be created when the mine is being constructed will not be sourced locally, and that 10 management staff will come from Atha’s Indian operations.
As far as we know, none of the trustees or beneficiaries of Atha’s black economic empowerment partner, the Bashubile Trust, lives in or near Wakkerstroom, Dirkiesdorp or Volksrust - or even in Mpumalanga.
Expert reports have shown that the mine will lower the water table, de-water the wetlands, and leave acid water for 45 years after the mine has been closed. In other words, if the mine opens this year, mining will take place until 2032, the level of the water table will be restored in 2077, and water treatment will continue until 2097. Atha has provided a financial guarantee of only R5.758million for closure costs.
So, in order to mine poor-quality coal, create a small number of local jobs and benefit well-connected people who have no links with the area, we are going to destroy one of our most precious water-source areas and bear the costs of polluted water until the end of the century.
Eight civil society and community organisations, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, have launched a series of legal challenges to the government’s decisions to approve the mine. The first is an interdict application today. But all eyes are on the Mpumalanga MEC for the Environment, Vusumuzi Shongwe, who has the power to set aside the environmental authorisation on appeal and prevent this disaster.
Melissa Fourie is the executive director at the Centre for Environmental Rights.