A FISHERMAN is about to release a fish caught at Witbank Dam, which receives its water from the polluted Olifants River. Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - Johan Greyling dips his silver bucket into the Witbank Dam to show how clean the water is. Still, the fisherman is wary of eating fish from the dam, which is located on the polluted Olifants River.

“I can’t see anything wrong with the fish,” he says. “But you don’t know what’s in this water, with all this pollution from the coal mines, the power stations and the sewage. I don't trust it."

On the smog-filled horizon, Eskom’s Duvha coal-fired power station towers over a luxury estate on the waterfront.

That’s the view Greyling and his friends enjoy as they wait for the fish to bite. They tell how they make “lekker curry fish and fish cakes” from their catches.

“If you cook it, it’s safe and good enough to eat,” smiles 64-year-old  Tinus van der Walt.

The Olifants River Catchment area has been identified by the newly-renamed Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation as one of South Africa’s most stressed catchments”.

Here, water use by coal mines has increased dramatically for electricity production, other mining activities – the region has is home to 650 active and abandoned mines – agriculture and for urban settlements in recent years.

“This has had considerable negative impacts on human health, stemming from water contamination, water shortages, and pollution of air and land,” says the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) in a new report, The Truth About Water Use Licence Compliance at Mpumalanga Coal Mines.

Coal mining, in particular, has had a devastating impact but despite comprehensive research and “damning” reports about the threats it poses to water resources, the department “takes little or no action to stop the pollution, and to hold polluting mining companies responsible”.

The CER assessed the degree to which the compliance of eight large coal mining operations in the Olifants and Wilge catchment areas were complying with their water use licences.

What it found was “massive failures” - gross violations and water pollution - by coal mining companies,  the department, and “supposedly independent” environmental auditors, to ensure the protection and sustainability of water resources.

For the department, the regulatory system, from the issuance of a water use licence to accountability for non-compliance, has "effectively disintegrated".

The operations of the eight coal mining companies assessed include Glencore, Exxaro, Tshedza Mining Resources, Universal Coal Development, Anglo American, South32 and Wescoal.

"This large-scale non-compliance is enabled by the DWS which appears completely unable to monitor compliance with water use licence conditions, leaving companies to monitor themselves, with devastating consequences for the Olifants River Catchment and surrounding communities, including farmers who rely on the catchment for their livelihoods and sustenance. 

"Moreover, the supposedly independent environmental auditors which monitor companies compliance with their water use licence conditions have been found to be negligent in their duties, writing up audit reports which fail to highlight issues of non-compliance and interpreting conditions in order to favour company compliance," says the report.

“It’s almost the deliberate design of a system to make it impossible to enforce,” remarks CER executive director Melissa Fourie.

Six of the eight coal mining operations companies collectively use around 8 million cubic metres of water per year, equivalent to approximately 3 195 filled Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"Annually just the six mines for which we could obtain data for water abstraction will use the same amount of water as about 176 000 Cape Town residents," says Leanne Govindsamy, the head of CER’s corporate accountability programme. 

It can take up to eight years for the department to issue a water use licence. Thomas Mnguni, groundWork’s community campaigner in Middelburg, says: “If you look at what these mines are doing, they capitalise on intentionally realise the gaps and weaknesses. and capitalise on that.Even if they’re violating their own water use licence, they know nobody is going to pick that up. It's common practice."

The report details how the mining operations, too, have to request their invoices from the department as it fails to monitor their water use..

Writer and researcher Victor Munnik describes it all as a tragedy. “Firstly, we have a department that simply cannot or doesn’t want to do its job ... Then you move on to the mines, and find a situation of effective self-regulation where they can do what they like. What they do is take the cheapest option most destructive to our water resources. Then you have the independent auditors... and it’s really shocking to see how they also take the easy way out.  There's a real moral deficiency in this situation." 

The report notes how despite the massive impacts and risks coal mining poses to water resources, almost none of the water use licences make water treatment - and financial provision to fund water treatment - an upfront requirement.

"Financial provision for mining rehabilitation administered by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) is also supposed to include water impacts, but very few companies provide for post closure management of water in the DMR administered provisions. As a result the state and public are bearing the full risk of these impacts."

Matthews Hlabane, of the the Southern African Green Revolutionary Council, says: "It's clear that the government is basically serving the interest of mining companies at all costs.

We see the continued pollution and contamination of the Olifants River and the continued destruction of our water resources, in this presence of all these state apparatus. How many officials in the Department of Water Affairs have stood up to these mining companies? We hear nothing. There are no criminal charges against these companies who've made a mess, who've polluted.".

Department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau says: “To do justice to the (CER) report, the department is compiling a comprehensive response that will deal with all the issues raised and ensure proper perspective. We will also indicate some of the actions taken and even outcomes; some of which ended up in the courts.”

The report revealed "gross negligence" of the part of environmental auditors. "We found many unsubstantiated or inaccurate conclusions and failures to report pollution incidents, deviations from pollution monitoring and violations of licence conditions," says Govindsamy.

Jacqui Hex, of the Environmental Assessment Practitioners Association of SA, says its registration requirements are fundamental to the improvement of quality in the industry.

"By February 8 2020, all EAPs practising in a position of primary responsibility for the planning, management, coordination or review of environmental impact assessments and associated environmental management programmes, are required to be registered with EAPASA. As part of the registration process an applicant is required to sign a set code of conduct.

Specifically point 4 states that registered EAPs shall not conduct professional activities in a manner involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation or bias. This is one of the 19 commitments that all registered EAPs are required to adhere to."

Hex says while the current legislation that governs EAPASA does not include provision for the registration of environmental auditors, water use licence practitioners and environmental control officers, the issue of including these practitioners under EAPASA’s mandate is under consideration for the future.

"The code of conduct covers 19 commitments with the purpose of ensuring that EAPs practice ethically, ensuring that environmental integrity and sustainable practice, including the socio-economic environmental and social welfare, are placed above any commitment to sectional or private interests. It is, however, critical to understand that EAPASA’s mandate is to regulate EAPs who are registered with the organisation.

"Those EAPs who undertake activities and are not registered, fall outside of the EAPASA and therefore it is vital that developers, mines and other applicants understand that, as of February 8 2020, only EAPs registered with EAPASA be appointed to undertake environmental related work governed by the National Environmental Management Act. Everyone has a role to play if we intend to protect our environment and improve the quality of the sector," adds Hex.

South Africa faces a grave water crisis in relation to its water resources, says the CER.

"The pollution of our scant resources, particularly in light of the radical changes predicted for our climate, poses massive risk for present and future generations ...We call on legislators, regulators, industry, financiers and investors to use their spheres of influence to take immediate action for meaningful reform.”

The Saturday Star