Thursday, 18 January 2018

The heavy toll of coal mining in South Africa

By Victoria Schneider

Emalahleni, South Africa – Everything in Andries Evans’ house is coated in black dust. It has invaded his sofas, the Jesus picture on the wall, the plastic cups and plates in his kitchen, and the old man himself.

He is a skinny, fragile man who looks much older than his 59 years. His red cap is dirty, his shirt and jogging pants are dirty. Everything is blackened from the coal his crumbling brick house is built upon.

The old man looked up and stuck his finger through the tin roof, as if it were going through soft butter.

“Look, it is all old and eroded.”

He said he feels the dust is not good for him, he is short of breath and feels weak. Even after 35 years, he cannot get used to the life on the Highveld of South Africa, an area that is said to have some of the highest air pollution levels in the world.

MNS is one of many informal settlements around the city of Emalahleni, “the place of coal” in Zulu, in the province of Mpumalanga, where decades of excessive coal mining has taken its toll on the environment.

The area of Emalahleni was declared a “High Priority Area” by the South African government in 2007 due to the hazardous substances in the air.

Among the issues scientists have found are elevated carbon dioxide emissions, sulphur dioxide in the air, heavy metals in the soil and acidic groundwater. These were linked to the 22 collieries in Mpumalanga, as well as the 12 coal-fired power stations – of the country’s 16.

A new power station, Kusile, is planned to be completed in 2017 and will make pollution levels even worse, environmental experts warn.

“Now that we are going through a power crisis the government relies even more on coal,” said Tracey Davies, an attorney from the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town.

“It is the easiest and quickest way to generate power, so we are just following this path without considering the consequences.”

Grim consequences

Generating more power through coal means more coal must be extracted.

But South Africa, which currently generates 90 percent of its electricity through coal, is already struggling with the devastating impacts of more than a century of excessive mining.

A stroll around Emalahleni is enough to get a feel for the impact coal has had the environment.

The landscape shines in bright colours, layers of white and yellow cover former riverbeds and grasslands that were transformed into mining areas.

There are no leaves on the trees, and the waters are clear and lifeless. Thick fog looms in the air.

“Acid mine drainage,” said Matthews Hlabane from the Southern African Green Revolutionary Council who has been monitoring the area for almost 30 years.

“The pH levels around here are below 1. Some residents of the informal settlements say that birds fall dead from the sky when they fly over the area.”

Hlabane laughs sarcastically. “In a few decades we are going to fight wars over water.”

He took Al Jazeera to areas in which coal seems have been burning underground for decades, where sinkholes and polluted groundwater from abandoned mines are a hazard to the surrounding communities.

Children play on the old mine dumps and adults collect the coal waste for domestic fires.

“If nothing happens we are going to lose all our water resources,” said Hlabane.

“The Olifants river is already contaminated and we are on our way to do the same to the Limpopo river.”

Worldwide demand

South Africa is not the only country to have chosen coal as the way forward in the near future.

Demand for coal is growing worldwide. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), it has been “the fastest-growing global energy source of the 21st century”, ensuring 40 percent of the world’s electricity supply in 2014.

The IEA predicts that China will account for three-fifths of global demand growth in the next 5 years, followed by India and other Asian nations.

At the launch of the IEA’s annual Coal Market report last December, executive director Maria van der Hoeven said “coal use in its current form is simply unsustainable”.

Energy production through coal releases sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxides and particulate matter (PM) at levels that exceed the maximum recommended by the World Health Organization, she said.

Even Europe, whose countries are investing more and more in renewable energies, still derives a third of its power from the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.  These trends ignore the numerous studies that have proved the negative impacts of coal mining on the environment, for which South Africa serves as a prime example.

Acid mine drainage

“Acid mine drainage from coal mining areas has had a devastating impact on water resources, with acidification of rivers and streams, elevated metal levels and consequent fish die-offs”, said a report released by the WWF South Africa in 2011.

Another study conducted by Greenpeace concluded that “decades of coal [mining] have poisoned the landscape and driven the Olifants River to a crisis point”.

The study suggested that the pollution levels are the cause of more than 2,000 premature deaths per year in South Africa.

Attorney Tracey Davies holds the government responsible for this “nightmare disaster”. She said the lawmakers are failing to monitor and enforce the “wonderful policies” South Africa has regarding the rehabilitation of the environment.

“The Department of Mineral Resources is granting more and more licences without making sure that the shafts are adequately closed.”

The law urges the companies to rehabilitate an area concurrently, while they are mining it.

“But it is simply not happening,” she said.

Phuti Mabelebele from the Department of Petroleum and Minerals, which regulates the duties of mining companies to prevent environmental damage, says that currently 263 mining licences have been granted, and more than 500 prospecting rights.

“Mining companies are expected to comply with the mine environmental policy,” she told Al Jazeera. She explained that “there is a mine rehabilitation programme in place that companies comply with,” although she did not elaborate on the nature of the programme.

The Bench Marks Foundation of South Africa insists that action must be taken. The NGO released a report last year, saying that there are at least 6,000 abandoned mines in Mpumalanga – 160 of these are around Emalahleni – which are spilling acid water and heavy metals into the environment.



“We call for obligatory transparency by mining corporations regarding mine closure plans,” said John Capel, the CEO of the NGO.

“Thousands of communities are living in areas that should have been closed off due to extremely hazardous conditions”.

Sitting on fire

He refers to places like Coronation, an informal settlement on the other side of Emalahleni. It looks like a post-apocalyptic film set – hills over hills of blackness, interrupted by sinkholes that cut through the landscape like giant scars.

The settlement is named after the mining operation it was built on, which was owned by Anglo American Coal and closed in the late 1940s.

“I know this is not safe,” said Salome Elem, a local resident, as she stood on the ridge of the dump, shovelling coal into a large bucket.

She said she doesn’t want her four-year-old son to play in the area because of the sinkholes and the dust that she thinks are dangerous. Two boys were recently burned to death after falling into an abandoned mine shaft, she recalled.

She looked fearfully at Matthews Hlabane as the activist explained that the ground underneath her shack could collapse at any moment.

“I know where we are standing is not safe … but my house?” she asked.

Every day she collects coal for domestic use. She is one of millions of households in South Africa who don’t have access to power, although the wires supplying the mines are visible from where she digs.

“You say there is a power problem in South Africa?” she laughed.

“I cook with coal and use solar power for light.”

Elem pointed towards a red and white shack, less than 50m away. On the roof is a solar panel. It generates just enough power to light a weak bulb and charge their phones at night.


“Most of the people in Coronation have started using solar,” Elem said.

Source:: Al Jazeera

The post The heavy toll of coal mining in South Africa appeared first on African Media Agency.


Foreigners in S Africa fearful after xenophobic attacks ‎4‎/‎2‎/‎2015‎ ‎7‎:‎30‎:‎21‎ ‎AM

By Azad Essa and Khadija Patel

Hundreds of foreign nationals have sought refuge at a local police station in the town of Isipingo in South Africa, almost four days after a series of alleged xenophobic attacks in the town, local activists said.

Community activist China Ngubane, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that tensions were still high in Isipingo, around 19 km from Durban, with hundreds of mostly Congolese nationals, many of them refugees, unable to return to their homes or businesses.

“About 250 people were directly attacked, according to authorities, but there are more than 500 others who come to the station, scared, especially at night,” Ngubane said.

The small town of Isipingo erupted on Monday when residents attacked foreign nationals living in the town.

According to local media, cars, minibus taxis, a home and foreign-owned businesses were stoned as groups of young South Africans targeted foreign nationals. The attack on Monday comes three weeks after a Congolese national living in Durban was reportedly burnt alive.

‘Very bad’

“The situation is very, very bad,” Daniel Dunia, a Congolese national, a spokesperson for the displaced refugees in Isipingo, said.

According to Dunia the violence began when a group of young South African men approached foreign nationals in Isipingo, chanting songs that claimed the Zulu King had ordered foreigners to leave.

Speaking at a moral regeneration rally in Pongola, northern Kwazulu Natal, in late March, King Goodwill Zwelithini is reported to have said that foreigners were changing the nature of South African society as they were taking advantage of the poorly behaved and undisciplined locals.

Zwelithini was also quoted as saying, “We urge all foreigners to pack their bags and leave.”

Foreign nationals affected by the violence in Isipingo blame the Zulu monarch for sowing discord between South Africans and migrants.

“Those people who don’t like foreigners have taken advantage of that statement,” Dunia said. “They started looting our shops, beating our brothers, and then destroying our shops.”

But authorities say the violence began after a labour dispute escalated at a local store in Isipingo.

On Wednesday, provincial minister for Community Safety Willies Mchunu’s spokesman, Kwanele Ncalane, also denied allegations that the Zulu King was responsible for the attacks.

“We vehemently oppose the idea that these actions stem from anything his majesty (King Goodwill Zwelithini) might have said. Anybody who is using that (as a reason) is deliberately misunderstanding the message (cracking down on those here illegally),” he was quoted saying.

Community activist China Ngubane said local residents were disgruntled with a store’s decision to hire foreigners instead of South Africans, further aggravating locals who feel foreigners are stealing jobs from locals.

He added that authorities promised to provide an alternate place and tents for them to live for now.

Crisis talks

Local NGO Al-Imdaad Foundation said it had responded to the crisis in partnership with other community agencies and the local government. “We have to continue our relief efforts because many of these people have no food, or anything at all. They are just languishing there with children,” Abed Carrim a representative of the NGO said.

On Wednesday, crisis talks between local government, the police, local and foreign-owned businesses were held in Durban to try and resolve the tensions. Several attempts to reach government and police spokespeople on Thursday were unsuccessful.

South Africa has seen a spate of attacks on foreigners over the past decade. In 2008, 62 people were killed in spectacular violence meted out on foreign nationals in the townships.

In January, foreign nationals were attacked after a 14-year-old South African was killed during an alleged robbery. In response to the teenager’s death, foreigners’ businesses were looted and damaged. Hundreds were forced to evacuate, finding themselves in tents in other parts of Johannesburg. In February, shops in Philipi, outside Cape Town were trashed.

The South African government, while condemning the violence, says the violence is motivated by criminality rather than xenophobia, though experts say the country has a xenophobia problem and government denial only exacerbated it.

Source:: Al Jazeera

The post Foreigners in S Africa fearful after xenophobic attacks appeared first on African Media Agency.

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