Johannesburg - Unbridled coal mining in Mpumalanga is
putting food security under threat as 54%of the province’s surface area may be
turned into wasteland.
Coal is mined in the province’s Highveld region, which is
South Africa’s leading producer of soya beans (51%), maize (24%) and dry beans
(23%). Agricultural production in the province contributes 3.3% to the nation’s
gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 12% employment.
The region is home to these towns: Witbank, Middelburg,
Belfast, Ermelo, Carolina, Piet Retief, Standerton, Bethal, Volksrust, Balfour
and Delmas. It is also an industrial hub.
AgriSA economist Dawie Maree said rehabilitated mining land
would not have the same agricultural potential as before, adding that there was
virtually no consideration of food security when mining permits were granted.
“Agricultural issues and high potential production regions
that contribute towards food security are not taken into account when mining or
prospecting licences are considered.
“The department of agriculture should play an active role in
the decision making on environmental issues,” said Maree.
“The Highveld is a very important region in the production
of maize and soya beans. It is one of the areas with the biggest potential for
maize production due to the good soils and higher rainfall than the western
parts of the country.”
More than 80% of South Africa’s coal meant for power
generation and the export market is extracted from this region.
There are about 60 mines that are currently operating on 13%
of river catchments and productive farms.
Pending mining permits and prospecting applications sitting
with the department of mineral resources indicate that if they were granted,
about 80% of the region’s land surface area could be given away to mines.
Environmentalists have also warned that more of the towns in
the province were at risk of having undrinkable water if coal mining remained
uncontrolled in the Highveld as activity will exacerbate the situation on river
catchments such as the Olifants, Vaal, Usutu and the Upper Komati.
Carolina residents are already suffering the consequences of
acid mining drainage and haven’t been using tap water for the past four months.
This follows laboratory studies indicating that water was
contaminated with high levels of sulphate, aluminium, chromium, manganese,
cobalt, lead, iron, zinc, copper and nickel.
And if consumed, this will lead to chronic health problems
for the residents.
Environmentalists add that the effects of polluted water
will be felt in the next 50 years in most of the local towns and the productive
farms due to mining on river catchments and fertile soil.
Research done by Professor Terence McCarthy of the
University of Witwatersrand’s geosciences department and environmental activist
Dr Koos Pretorius indicates that acid levels above acceptable quantities for
human consumption have already been recorded in the Witbank and Middelburg
The department of water affairs added that water at the
Loskop dam was also contaminated as well as in rivers such as Olifants,
Boesmanspruit, Klein Olifants, Upper Komati and Wilge.
Dr Pretorius, who also farms in Belfast, said: “We shouldn’t
be mining high-potential areas at all as there will be no suitable water for
household use, agriculture and industries.”
He added: “Carolina hasn’t had water for four months and I
can tell you that Belfast will be next.
Ermelo and Breyten will soon follow because of mining that
is taking place in the catchment areas there.”
McCarthy and Dr Pretorius’s research warns that the entire
region could become a “total wasteland once the coal reserves had been fully
exploited and mining had ceased”.
It points out that underground and river water will be
undrinkable, and aquatic life will be reduced to a minimum as has been the case
in parts of Witbank already.
“Land will be sterilised due to acidification of soils. This
scenario might seem melodramatic and emotive, but there is no system either in
place or planned to prevent this,” the research shows.
“The future costs of water purification will be massive, far
greater than any mitigation fund could cover, and these will have to be borne
by the state.”
Deon Nel, head of the biodiversity unit at WWF South Africa,
said the Carolina issue was just the tip of the iceberg. WWF campaigns for the
protection of fresh water sources.
“The whole Ekangala grasslands area – which is at the corner
of Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga – is under application for
“This is a very important area from the hydrological point
of view as it is where various water systems meet and supply fresh water to the
rest of the country.”
Zingaphi Jakuja, spokesperson for the mineral resources
ministry, was unable to give detailed information on mining applications in the
McCarthy proposes that a moratorium on new mining operations
should be imposed to curb the damage in the Highveld river system.
Speaking for the water affairs ministry, Linda Page said:
“If precautions and regulatory functions are not done, then coal mining can be
a threat to the suitability of water for all water users in catchments.”