/ 28 June 2009

The water is mine

Half of South Africa's coal resources lie under the Waterberg region and mines are gearing up to move in.

Scientists and environmentalists are worried that burgeoning coal mining in the Waterberg might not be sustainable — or ecologically desirable — with the little water available in the region already exploited to the limit.

Mining giant Exxaro — for now, but not for long — the only coal miner in the area, has indicated that the water supply may not be enough to accommodate more mines.

Almost half of the country’s remaining coal resources lie beneath the Waterberg and mining companies are eyeing this treasure.

The Waterberg is also the site of the new Medupi coal power station, scheduled to come on line in 2012 and expected to produce about 4 800MW of electricity.

A host of prospecting permits and a few new mining licences have been issued to new operators in the region in recent years, with some of them scheduled to be up and running by early 2010.

A looming water crisis has prompted the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to launch an intensive three-year study on water sustainability in the area.

Funded by a parliamentary grant, the three-year research project will focus on the state of the aquatic ecosystems of the upper and middle reaches of the Mokolo and Lephalala rivers. The Waterberg forms a wide basin in which four of the main rivers in Limpopo — the Lephalala, Mokolo, Matlabas and Mogalakwena rivers — originate.

Pete Ashton, principal researcher and fellow at the CSIR, says the Limpopo River basin is particularly water-stressed. ”Every tributary river in the basin has been exploited to the limit by conventional engineering approaches. Efforts to meet society’s demands for water for domestic, irrigation, mining and industrial uses have caused a progressive deterioration of the aquatic ecosystems.”

Ashton says that additional atmospheric depositions from planned new coal mines and power stations in the area, combined with increasing agricultural activity and the development of new towns to house the employees of mines and power stations, ”will only exacerbate the already poor water quality situation and accelerate the rate at which aquatic ecosystems deteriorate”.

”There is simply too little water available in the basin to support projected developments and new supplies will have to be brought in via inter-catchment transfers,” he says. To this end the Crocodile Mokolo Water Augmentation Project has been set up to pump in additional water from the Crocodile River.

The area’s veteran mine, Exxaro’s Grootgeluk, which has supplied the Matimba power station with coal since 1980, is expanding operations to supply Eskom’s new power station, Medupi. The mine is contracted to start supplying 14.6-million tons of coal to Medupi in 2011.

With the mine’s expansion, a new power station and an expected influx of people and other industries into the town of Lephalale, the pressure on scarce water resources will intensify.

Joe Meyer, project manager of Exxaro’s Grootgeluk Medupi expansion project, says that although the mine uses water efficiently, having saved about 75% of its usage on the mine in the past six years, water remains a commodity that needs to be handled with care.

Exxaro has a ring-fenced agreement with the Lephalale municipality and Eskom to manage the water service to the town and to Matimba.

Meyer thinks it will be difficult for new mining operators to gain a foothold in the area without additional water being sourced for the region. ”All stakeholders will have to work together to ensure the Crocodile scheme is a success.” He says that Exxaro will closely guard its own existing water rights.

But Tim Teibeila, chair of new operator Sekoko Mining, is critical of what he calls the monopoly of water in the Waterberg and says that Exxaro will have to share in the future.

Teibeila says that although its smaller operations, scheduled to open within the next year, will be fine for now, it will require the Crocodile scheme to be fully operational to open its main mine in 2012.

Eskom referred all questions regarding water supply in the Lephalale region to the department of water affairs, which had not responded by the time of going to print.