South Africa is in its second year of drought. A strong El Niño has exacerbated this, leaving the agriculture sector devastated and water shortages in many municipalities. Entire provinces have been declared disaster areas.
The 8% of the country’s surface area that captures and cleans half of its water has been particularly hard hit. But, rather than securing water catchments, the government is continuing to entertain initiatives such as coal mining in areas that capture the country’s water.
“Nothing changes. We do our bit to feed the country but the government will favour any sort of industry over food,” said Faan Botha.
He is at the forefront of the fight to preserve water, in this case in a farming area between Heidelberg and the Vaal Dam, to the south of Johannesburg. His family has farmed in this area for a century, and Italian prisoners of war built the stone farmhouse. His family knows every bit of this land. “You don’t get the idea from anyone [in government] that water is important.”
His water mostly comes from underground rivers. Rocky hills around Heidelberg capture rainfall, and ensure it flows south into the Vaal Dam. A third of South Africa’s economy depends on the dam, which sustains 11-million people. The quality of local water is so good that a Valpré bottling plant was built to supply water to Gauteng.
But farmers say this is threatened by continual requests for mining in the area. In 2008, Anglo American Inyosi applied for permission to start an open-cast coal mine near the country’s largest beef feedlot, Karan Beef. The mineral resources department has not dealt with the application. Now the mine is applying for a mining right over a 6 000-hectare area of farmland. Only 200ha will be above the ground, with the rest down to 200m underground.
The application has seen heated exchanges between the mine’s consultants and locals. Farmers and other local residents have questioned the effect on both underground and river water, especially in the decades and centuries after the mine closes. Water and topsoil 30cm thick mean each hectare of land here produces 10 tonnes of maize a season – double the average for other areas in this green belt.
“Many places have good soil, but it’s the water here that makes farming perfect here,” says Botha.
“All we need now is a mine messing with the underground water, and we all know what happens when mines close,” says Botha.
Anglo’s consultants have been at pains to say there will be no threat to local water supplies from the mine.
But there have been cracks in that narrative, with one consultant saying at a public meeting that Anglo had “previously made water available” to farmers in cases where they no longer had clean water.
Questions about the future of water supplies have been met with references to Anglo’s record as a good corporate citizen.
“Mines will do and say anything to get a mining licence,” says Paul Fairall, a lifelong water activist. He has spent decades investigating the sources of water pollution. “If a problem is picked up – say, if there is a danger of acid mine water after operations cease – the mine will pay it forward and tell mineral resources [department] that they have a plan to ensure that this does not happen.”
Little attention is given to the overall effect of mines in water catchments, or of the historical example of mining in Gauteng, he says.
“Mining destroys water. Period. Where you have to mine, it has to be done away from water production areas because water is a more valuable commodity to South Africa as a whole than coal,” says Fairall.
The government’s focus is clearly on mining rather than water security, says Christine Colvin of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“A great deal of lip service is paid to protecting things like wetlands, but in reality it is connections and the promise of limited job creation that always wins out.”
Water scarcity is not factored into the decisions made by other departments, she says. “We could do a lot to stave off a drought if we looked after our natural water resources, but that is not happening.”
These worries are quietly echoed by the water department and utilities such as Rand Water when they come up against industry and other departments. At a recent public meeting about the Heidelberg mine, a Rand Water official said: “We are concerned about the impact the mining activities will have on the water resource of the Vaal Dam.” This was both during the operational phase, and after mining ended, with the chance of acid mine water, he said.
In a note from the utility to Anglo’s consultants, it said its geographic information systems unit had found “sensitive water bodies” in the area of the proposed mine. In polite government-speak this is the equivalent of shouting a warning.
An official at water affairs says the department struggles to get other departments to respect the need to protect water sources. “There is a real disconnect. We’re this incredibly water-scarce country but, whenever we try to ensure our water is preserved, we get told that there are other realities at play.”
Heidelberg’s farmers are aware of these realities. Upbeat and combative conversations inevitably end with an acceptance that the government will side with industry. Theirs is a fight for damage limitation to their water and food resources.