Mpumalanga province has a total of 65 coal mines, producing 80% of South Africa’s total coal production, and creating abundant employment opportunities in the region.
However, the coalfields could potentially have a deleterious impact on the freshwater and other natural resources of Mpumalanga, reports nature conservationist group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
WWF Ecosystems programme manager Thérèse Brinkcate says that concerns regarding acid mine drainage in Mpumalanga have surfaced strongly in the last two years.
She explains that this is owing to the exponential increase in mining and prospecting applications in sensitive grassland and wetland ecosystems in the region.
“WWF and our partner, the Botanical Society, have been active in the high-altitude grassland area, known as Enkangala, for over eight years, working with local landowners to conserve sensitive ecosystems whilst still retaining a productive agricultural landscape. Insensitive mining threatens both the conservation and agricultural value of the area,” says Brinkcate.
The national environmental awareness campaign, Indalo Yethu, which is an initiative by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (Deat), reports that plans to mine for coal in the catchment areas of major rivers present a serious threat to South Africa’s freshwater resources.
Investigations by Indalo Yethu into the impact of coalfields on the freshwater resources of Mpumalanga reveal that acid pollution caused by coal-mining has already destroyed the Wilge river that flows through the Ezemvelo Reserve, near Bronkhorstpruit, in Mpumalanga, and has caused notable deaths of fish and crocodiles at the Olifants river inlet to Loskop dam, between Middelburg and Groblersdal.
Brinkcate says that the Olifants river catchment area, in Mpumalanga, has been severely impacted on through the process of acid mine drainage.
She adds that several nongovernmental organisations, academics and State conservation departments have already expressed concern.
Chemical processes between water and the sulphides in the waste rock left after mining make the water acidic and this causes the pollution of surface water resources, explains Brinkcate.
“Large-scale fish and crocodile deaths at Loskop dam have been directly
attributed to acidification of the Olifants river from coal-mining,” she says.
Brinkcate says that the WWF, the Botanical Society and other environmental conservation groups are involved in a range of partnerships with various mining companies to try to develop best practice standards with regard to the impact mining has on the environment.
“While many mining companies are implementing responsible approaches, we still believe that some areas are too ecologically sensitive and should remain prohibition zones for mining. Because of the potential impact on downstream resources, mining should not take place in sensitive headwater catchment such as the Enkangala area,” argues Brinkcate.
Meanwhile, proposals are on the table to mine in an area north- west of Ermelo, where the Vaal river originates, reports Indalo Yethu.
University of the Witwatersrand School of Geosciences’ Professor Terence McCarthy cautions that within a decade the water quality in the upper Vaal river will deterio- rate to the point where it will no longer be fit for human consumption.
McCarthy explains that the proposed mining area encompasses a large portion of the headwaters of the Vaal river, and it is almost certain that the proposed mining will result in serious pollution of this river system.
The Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) is seemingly granting permits for prospecting and mining without appropriate consultation with landowners and with other departments, such as Deat, the Department of Water Affairs and even the Department of Agriculture, alleges Brinkcate.
She says that the lack of appropriate planning and alignment across government departments is one of the biggest challenges facing the freshwater conservation efforts in Mpumalanga.