South Africa’s filthy war

“You know what it means to be close to a power plant? Being close to trouble.” Tiger B., is 41 years old, though he seems sixty. He has always worked as a welder in the coal-fired power plant, Duvha Power Station, near Emalahleni. It’s an appropriate name for a mining city: in the Nguni language “Emalahleni” means “place of coal.”

His life and that of his family’s are in harmony with the rhythm of the 3,600 Megawatt power plant. The owner of the plant is Eskom, the state-owned electricity utility company and for years now the largest in South Africa. The coal mine feeds energy production, and black smog covers both the village and also Tiger’s lungs, which are clogged with phlegm and dust. “Do you see the high-voltage cables and water pipes? They are for the power plant. But in the village we have neither electricity nor water. Hundreds of thousands of liters per minute are used to cool the turbines that generate energy sold to Swaziland and Mozambique. For us, we live in the dark and get three and a half liters of water per day that we carry in a tank.” In the makeshift village, almost 5,000 people live stacked beside a coal wall and a black water well, waiting every week for the small community cistern to be filled. “People often argue furiously for a few more liters,” says Lucky, who prefers not to use his full name for fear of retaliation, passing a dirty cigarette to Tiger. “Coal is stealing our right to water and air.” 

South Africa and water

The country of Nelson Mandela and Kruger National Park, the last preserve for lions and rhinos, has in recent years become one of the least sustainable countries on the African continent. The main offender is the mining industry, which accounts for about 8.3 percent of the country’s GDP. South Africa extracts 8 million carats of diamonds each year, owns more than 80 percent of platinum and 12 percent of the world’s gold. Both are extracted from giant South African mines, the largest over 3900 meters deep. But on the throne of the most impactful materials “given” by the earth, sits coal. Coal is the main culprit for global warming (South Africa ranks thirteenth for CO2 emissions) and water use, consuming around 10 percent of the country’s total.
South Africa possesses 3.5 percent of global coal reserves but accounts for over 6 percent of global exports.
The coal that remains feeds 81 percent of electricity production, which is controlled almost entirely by the state-owned power utility, Eskom.

Coal has an extremely heavy water cost: each ton extracted requires over 10,000 liters of water. Large power plants, such as the one in Kusile, opening in 2017 near Maheleni, will use 71 million liters of water per day. Consumption is similar at the Duvha plant, home to Tiger and Lucky. 

Assault on the Environment

Multinational and small, local mining companies alike seem little interested in water issues. Stimulated by a laissez-faire government, they are pushing for development into unexplored areas, in particular those of the Limpopo region. Like the Waterberg Project, with 8,000 hectares of platinum extraction, or Makhado, a new mine of 5.5 million tons of coal developed by Coal of Africa Ltd. One of the areas lesser known to the media – and to investors – is the southern area of Mpumalanga, on the border with the state of Kwalazulu-Natal. Ahta-African Ventures, Ltd., part of Atha Indian Group, has submitted a request to the Ministry of Mineral Resources to create a mine in the heart of a protected area, the Mabola Protected Environment, according to documents obtained by the author. A desert ready to be exploited? Not at all, the Mabola is a critical wetland at the confluence of three water reservoirs: the Vaal, the Tugela and the Pongola. The area is part of a strategically important system of protected areas. The territory covers eight percent of the nation’s total area, but collects 50 percent of all precipitation. 

Oubaas Malan, a sixty-six year old man with dry, white legs covered by pair of khaki shorts, leans on his Toyota pickup. He watches from a distance his 3,000 sheep grazing in a valley, green from December’s rains. The air is fresh, the hills perfumed by chlorophyll. A jeep of tourists armed with binoculars and professional 700 mm telephoto lenses move slowly along the dirt road, hoping to spot rare birds like a Blue crane, Rudd’s lark, or the rare bald ibis. A group of boys walk barefoot in the pastures, on ground still soft from last night’s rain. 

“The mine will be built exactly here,” he says, pointing to the valley, “and I will have to leave. The water for the cows will be at risk. I have a friend who had cows near a mine and they all got sick,” says Oubaas, in an English heavily marked by a strong Afrikaans accent. 

The local population is against the project. In case of an accident or acid drainage from the mine, not only the valley but also the entire area would be affected. The mine would be at the highest point of the triple reservoir. “The mine threatens to devastate this area,” explains Andrea Weiss of WWF South Africa. “This would not only impact biodiversity, but also local tourism at Wakkerstroom, which is strongly focused on eco-friendly trips and bird-watching.” 

These are some of the reasons why environmentalists are up in arms. “This area is protected, classified by the South African National Biodiversity Institute as one of the twenty-one strategic water resources,” explains Melissa Fourie, executive director of the CER, the center for environmental rights in Johannesburg. “We cannot allow Atha to win this legal battle.” Stopping the Mabola mine does not mean being hostile to coal production, but, as Andrea Weiss explains, “it means deflecting the thirst of mining companies towards less vulnerable areas and areas les central to water security. Moreover, the country should implement a coordinated strategy to avoid harmful impacts of acid drainage and contamination of resources for agricultural and human use.” A verdict on Mabola is expected this summer. 

New energy, new water crisis

If the battle over coal seems already destined for a lengthy conflict, two new challenges are emerging to further complicate the confrontation between water security and national energy development. The affected area is southern Karoo, a desert area in the heart of the country – the mining provinces. According to prospectors, under the rocks of the sunburned Karoo are significant uranium mines, which are essential to support the renewed and controversial South African nuclear program. There are also important shale gas resources, an unconventional natural gas extracted by fracking, which means fracturing the rock under the surface using water and chemical agents at high pressure. According to think tank Transnational Institute, fracking is considered “a system that is seriously jeopardizing the community and causing a troubling diversion of water use in favor of mining companies.” 

At present, an environmental campaign begun in 2011, Unearthed, by Jolynn Mynnaar, has put a temporary stop to developing shale gas extraction. The prospect of nuclear energy and uranium mining, however, continues. The government is set to invest more than 70 billion with Russia’s Rosatom for a new nuclear power plant. The plan is the daughter of an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his African counterpart, Jacob Zuma. The project has stirred up mining companies to file mining claims related to uranium, including in the Southern Karoo. 

“It’s madness,” said Bill Steenkamp, while parked in a desert valley just outside Beaufort West, in the heart of Karoo. The temperature rises to 37 degrees Celsius, the heat blurring the horizon, altering the light’s trajectory. “There is no water in Karoo. You can see it with your own eyes. To extract uranium water will be imported by train from the coast, while taking advantage of every drop that we have here now. The companies interested have already done their numbers. In the region the population uses 7 billion gallons of water a year. The uranium operations alone would require 14 billion liters. Maybe the water is coming from the coast, but what happens if they contaminate the few reserves of fresh water we have here with radioactive elements?” Climate change has already made its mark. Precipitation has been dangerously low for the past few years, and for years many basins around Beaufort West, one of the main urban centers of southern Karoo, have remained dry. 

In Beaufort West unemployment exceeds 40 percent. For many, the new mining boom could be an opportunity to get out of poverty. “They should be investing in solar and wind energy. There’s plenty of wind and sun here,” says Bill kicking the dust with his shoe to emphasize the northern breeze. “As long as they stop continuing to dig in this poor country.” 

TEXT:  Emanuele Bompan

PHOTOGRAPHY:  Fausto Podavini

VIDEO & RESEARCH: Marirosa Iannelli

MAPS: Riccardo Pravettoni

INFOGRAPHICS: Federica Fragapane



European Journalism Center  IDR Grant

CapHolding  Fondazione LIDA



Maririosa Iannelli, University of Genoa