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Environmental group says marine phosphate mining cannot be sustained by Namibia

17th May 2013

By: Gia Costella

  

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The Namibian marine environment cannot accommodate a viable fishing industry and the disruptive exercise of marine phosphate mining, says environmental lobby group Swakopmund Matters.

“Either one or the other can thrive – not both,” says the group, which was formed in 2011 to raise awareness of the potential damage that marine phosphate mining can cause to the Namibian environment, particularly the marine ecosystem and rich fishing resources.

Currently, there are four marine phosphate-mining projects in various phases of development planned for the Namibian coastal region at four different points in the Atlantic Ocean. These are being carried out by Namibian and international mining companies.

“The Namibian fishing industry represents the sustainable use of a renewable resource, whereas seabed mining has a destructive impact on the marine ecosystem. It represents finite exploitation of a non- renewable resource at the expense of fishing resources, which are of cardinal importance to the Namibian economy,” says Swakopmund Matters.

The Namibian fishing industry earns about $580-million in foreign earnings through export and directly employs more than 13 000 people offshore and 8 800 on shore, says Swakopmund Matters.

“This kind of marine phosphate mining has never been undertaken anywhere else in the world. It is highly controversial, as the Namibian coast and the Benguela region of the ocean are the most productive and biologically beneficial areas for the country,” the group notes.

Swakopmund Matters notes that Article 95(1) of Namibia’s supreme law proclaims: “The State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting, inter alia, policies aimed at the . . . maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity of Namibia and [use] of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future. . . ”

“Over the years, the marine environment has been subjected to familiar threats, such as pollution, but the marine mining of phosphates is far more serious and poses a new challenge,” says the group.

It notes that many marine biologists and other experts are aware of the serious con- sequences of this kind of mining activity and have voiced their concerns.

“Marine phosphate mining has never been done anywhere else in the world and Namibian coastal waters are now facing the threat of being the testing ground. These concerns have not yet been adequately con- sidered in Namibia,” says environmental group Earth Organisation Namibia director Marcia Stanton.

Swakopmund Matters says that many environmental impacts stemming from marine phosphate mining have to be assessed. These include concentrations of hydrogen sulphide in sediment and the effect of these sulphides when released, such as low oxygen levels in the water. Most notable perhaps is the effect of possible hydrogen sulphide release into the benthic layer of the ocean, as oxygen levels are critical in these oxygen minimum zones, which include the central Benguela region.

Further assessments that need to be made include the number of dissolved nutrient inputs from sediment; trace metals and other potential noxious compounds that could be released into the water, as these could have serious effects on the marketing of fish products, such as hake, monk and shellfish; information on thiobacteria; and changes in the Redfield ratio in surface waters.

More information on spawning activities in the mining area also needs to be made available.

Former head of the Marine Chemistry and Biology Division of the Stellenbosch-based National Research Foundation for Oceanology Professor Michael Orren notes that offshore mining of phosphate-rich sediments poses environmental challenges, as it releases toxic matter, such as hydrogen sulphide, and reduced phosphorous compounds, such as phosphine, a killer gas used in warfare.

“The offshore currents of Namibia’s coast are weak, with slow reversing and dispersion, so anything put into the sea tends to stay there,” he notes.

On World Ocean Day last year, Namibian Hake Fishing Industry Association chairperson Matti Amukwa voiced his concerns to an audience in Swakopmund.

“Many of the fish we catch are high-end earners, such as hake, monkfish, rock lobster and deep-sea crab. These are mostly exported to countries with higher incomes; however, Namibian horse mackerel also contributes to food security in Africa. A fishing concessionaire with a 15 000 t quota is producing 135-million tons a year of fish. This equates to feeding 370 000 people in Africa every day.

“Namibia is ranked in the top ten countries in the world for its ability to effectively manage its fishery resources, but the international fishing industry is becoming increasingly competitive. Overseas buyers are becoming more demanding – the fish they buy must have an eco-label, showing that the fishery is responsibly managed,” he said.

He noted that the United Nations Food and Agriculture organisation had developed rigorous international guidelines for eco-labelling, which require fisheries to reduce their catch levels if fish stock was declining.

“Namibia is currently in a good position to benefit from eco-labelling, and the hake industry, which employs 8 950 people, is seriously considering it. This will enable us to move into new markets, which are currently unavailable to us. Consequently, we cannot afford to have marine phosphate mining negatively disrupting the environment, as this will reduce our fish-stock populations,” he added.

Former head of environmental group the World Wildlife Fund South Africa Dr Allan Heydorn has also expressed concerns around marine phosphate mining, says Swakopmund Matters.

He notes that the likelihood of marine phosphate mining being deleterious to Namibia’s fishing industry is substantial and the environmental impacts will be serious, particularly in an area characterised by the powerful Benguela current system.

“The principle of seabed mining needs to be subjected to a detailed environmental-impact assessment with public participation. Infrastructure requirements, such as harbour facilities for offloading large volumes of sediments, need to be fully disclosed,” he says.

In October 2012, Namibia received an award at the eleventh United Nations Biodiveristy Summit, held in Hyderabad, India, for its landmark Marine Resources Act of 2000, which provides the framework for a sustainable fishing industry.

“By accepting the award, Namibia is reassuring the world that it is capable of looking after and protecting its marine assets with great responsibility,” says Swakopmund Matters.

The environmental lobby group notes that, given the uncertainty associated with this kind of phosphate mining, it is not possible to predict the impacts of any of these projects with complete accuracy.

“All the uncertainties arise because of a lack of knowledge and experience about the tech- nologies and processes under- pinning the mining system, the biodiversity and the ecosystem of the deep ocean. What is certain is that impacts will be associated with each step of the mining process.

“The geographic footprint of each of these seabed mining operations is likely to be sig- nificant. The interactions among currents, the weather and oceanic events will mean that the spread of pollution and impacts cannot be contained or readily predicted,” says Swakopmund Matters, noting that a comprehensive policy is needed for this activity.

Edited by Megan van Wyngaardt
Creamer Media Contributing Editor Online

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