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‘We struggle for water, but power stations and coal mines don’t’

It’s a scorching afternoon in Lephalale as Elana Greyling directs the way to Lesedi village in Steenbokpan, about 50km away.

Greyling, the chair of Concerned Citizens of Lephalale, has lived in the Limpopo bushveld for a long time and knows these potholed roads like the back of her hand. While she speaks, strands of wool spill down her lap as she methodically crochets a handbag. 

“See that road there,” Greyling says, pointing towards a cluster of dense bushveld across the road from a huge coal heap that feeds Eskom’s Medupi power station. “That’s where Thabametsi would have been. I like the sound of that — would have been,” she grins.

Had it gone ahead, Thabametsi would have been one of the most greenhouse gas emission-intensive coal-fired power stations in the world, according to the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER).

But after a four-year battle, Earthlife Africa and groundWork recently secured agreement from Thabametsi and the government for its 2015 environmental authorisation issued by the department of environment to be set aside. This comes as several of its key funders recently fled the coal-intensive project.

‘Pivotal point’ of destruction 

Still, as always, there’s another battle on Greyling’s hands: the Mokolo-Crocodile River (West) Water Augmentation Project Phase 2A (MCWAP-2A), a R15-billion proposed water pipeline intended to pump dirty water from Hartbeespoort Dam, which is polluted by wastewater effluent from Gauteng, to Lephalale and Steenbokpan to supply Medupi and other proposed coal projects in the thirsty region.

That the pipeline will enable the development of new coal infrastructure in the pristine Waterberg, touted as South Africa’s next “coal frontier” by the mining industry and the government, fills Greyling with dread. This second phase, she says, will be the “pivotal point” in the destruction of the Waterberg.

Soldiering on: Elana Greyling has for years fought for the environment and for people. The latest battle on her hands is a project in the Waterberg water catchments that could cause environmental and human harm. (James Puttick)

“Because of this project, a lot of coal mines will be enabled, and because this is a water-scarce area, this will be their only possible source of water. This fight is just getting some petrol in the engine and will be for as long as people think there’s money in coal. In South Africa, that’s going to be a very long time.”

In the dry, dusty Lesedi village, Lettah Sekoboane sits on a sagging chair in the harsh sun, watching as the children at her preschool play under a tattered shade cloth. 

“We don’t want this pipeline,” she says resolutely. “The more we struggle to get water, the more these power stations and coal mines get all the water. We are suffering and they are surviving. Sometimes when you open the tap, it’s just a trickle. You can’t bathe, you can’t cook. We can’t start food gardens because of the lack of water.” 

If the pipeline goes ahead, the several thousand inhabitants of Lesedi will probably have to be moved, says Greyling. “More coal mines will start and these people will be living right in the middle of them.”

The informal settlement is a symbol of the faded hopes of employment at Medupi. “We saw an influx of hopefuls wanting work, but of course, there was very little work. I expect the same will happen with this pipeline, maybe not to such a large extent, but people will come for jobs that most likely won’t be available.”

In a paper released in May — titled Water Risks of Coal-driven Mega Projects in Limpopo — the University of the Witwatersrand’s Victor Munnik writes about the Electro Metallurgical Special Economic Zone (EMSEZ) and the MCWAP, which is “to bring in water for sulphur dioxide scrubbers on Eskom’s faltering Medupi power station (their installation being a contractual obligation to the World Bank) and in the hope of expanding coal mining and electricity generation”. 

The second phase, he writes, is intended to extend the lives of Medupi and Matimba power stations, provide for one or two more coal-fired power stations, new coal mines and the expansion of Exxaro’s Grootgeluk coal mine.

“The water will be from the heavily eutrophic Hartbeespoort Dam on the Crocodile River, infested with water hyacinth and burdened with effluent from wastewater works. Ultimately, this water derives from the Lesotho Highlands Project. If the project is completed, dirty water would be brought into the Waterberg and eventually contaminate streams including the Mokolo.”

Such projects “take place in defiance” of climate change. “The Waterberg development requiring the MCWAP violates reasonable expectations of the timeline for phasing out coal in South Africa and the world, such as that the early 2020s should mark a sharp downturn in fossil fuel burning and that by 2050 coal burning should be zero.”

Appeals shot down

Last month, Barbara Creecy, minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, dismissed eight appeals against the environmental authorisation her department had granted for the proposed pipeline to the department of human settlements, water and sanitation.

The appellants were Earthlife Africa and groundWork; KP Trust; The Coves Governing Body NPC, 350Africa.org; Servitude Watch CC; Crocodile River West Irrigation Board; Kosmos Residents and Ratepayers Association and Thabo Tholo (Pty) Ltd. 

Her appeal decision records how the second phase project has been identified as a strategic integrated project aimed at providing infrastructure in the Waterberg and Steelpoort for the unlocking of the northern mineral belt. 

Creecy stated that, “it is not insignificant that the project will result in bulk water supply to Lephalale local municipality. Furthermore, this must be considered within the broader objectives of the project, including supplying water to power stations and increasing water supply to meet increased demand in the areas in the future.”

She reiterates the decision to authorise the development was based on the information provided in the final environmental impact report that was found to be adequate in terms of environmental legislation. 

“The information included specialist studies with site specific findings and recommended mitigation measures. Further to this, the environmental authorisation has conditions in place to ensure maximum protection of the environment. I’m satisfied that the impacts identified were adequately assessed and that appropriate mitigation measures have been provided.”

Hauled over the coal: Lettah Sekoboane runs a creche in Steenbokpan village where the water supply is just a trickle from the tap. (James Puttick)

Social upheaval

The human settlements, water and sanitation department argued that the failure to implement the project may lead to a withdrawal of the World Bank loan and an intervention by the International Monetary Fund. There could be a call on treasury guarantees, downgrading of Eskom and the republic by rating agencies and currency instability, all of which may lead to social upheaval.

“The applicant argues there will be serious repercussions for the country should the project not continue. The applicant argues it does not make national strategic sense to run about 20% of electricity capacity on a single water source as the risk to have such a large component of the energy supply dependent on a small river, like the Mokolo River, is unacceptable,” Creecy stated in her rejection of the appeals. 

A drought in the Mokolo River catchment without augmentation from the Crocodile River (West) “could have a severe impact on energy security with associated negative impacts on the economy”.

But, Nicole Loser, head of the CER’s pollution and climate change programme, which represented Earthlife Africa and groundWork, says Creecy has chosen to ignore the far-reaching effect, particularly on climate change, of the project going ahead. 

“A major concern is that this project’s entire reason for existence is to enable coal development in the Waterberg — yet another costly project to prop up the coal industry at a time when we need to be moving in the opposite direction. If it goes ahead, it will give rise to countless more greenhouse gas emissions, harmful air pollutants and other social and environmental impacts in the Waterberg.” 

The effect on climate and the transfer of poor quality water, among other concerns, were not adequately assessed in the project’s environmental studies, she says. 

Beyond Thabametsi, other coal projects and mines are proposed for the Waterberg.

“It may well be that many of these anticipated coal projects do not materialise because of lengthy litigation or withdrawal of funding — as we have seen with Thabametsi. Or they become stranded assets,” says Loser. “This would mean wasted resources on yet another large-scale project South Africa doesn’t need, with potentially irreversible impacts on our precious water resources.”

A railway bridge has been partially constructed outside Lephalale in preparation for the expansion of coal mining in the area. (James Puttick)

Project ‘will provide jobs’

Sputnik Ratau, the spokesperson  for the department of human settlements, water and sanitation, says the main purpose of the project is to augment the water supply to people in the Lephalale area to ensure reliable and secure supply of good quality water until 2040. The project seeks to  secure the required additional water supply to Medupi mainly for three out of the six flue gas desulphurisation units to combat air pollution from the station and to enable Eskom to meet its contractual obligations towards lenders and comply with its legal obligation “towards the preservation of the ecology”

Ratau added that the other reasons are to unlock the potential for development of the Waterberg coal fields to promote economic development and job creation in the area.

The Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) is the implementing agent and the project will go out to tender next year. The planned start of construction is October 2021 and the planned water delivery date is January 2026, according to Ratau.

At the peak of its implementation phase the project will provide an estimated 2 000 direct jobs “with potential to open room for sizable indirect jobs and opportunities as a result of the heightened economic activity in the area”, according to the TCTA.

“The pipeline will have a 30m wide servitude similar to that for the existing power lines that already traverse the farming areas. The farmland areas affected by the route of the pipeline are mainly engaged in the business of game farming. Thus, it is expected that the pipeline will have limited to minimal impact in these areas. 

“The environmental impact assessment proposes appropriate mitigation measures to minimise the social and environmental disruptions during both the construction and operational phases of the project,” it says. 

Conscious Chiloane, the communications manager for the Lephalale municipality, says the “benefits of the pipeline is that upon completion, it will unlock the mining industry”.

Degrading, not development

People may indirectly receive some water from the project, says Greyling, “but we fear it will be very expensive because of the cost of the pipeline”.

“The water will not be cleaned. The people will not get a drop of this water. Big companies will exchange their quota from the Mogol River, or parts of their quotas, to be replaced by the grey water from MCWAP-2A. Therefore we will still be getting the same water from the same dam, but we’re just getting a piece of their quota and they’re getting the more expensive quota. That’s why we suspect the same water we’re using right now will be more expensive.”

David Hallowes, a researcher at groundWork, says they are expecting that a regional drought could, in the next few years, bring Gauteng to day zero. 

Powerlines from Matimba powerstation pass over Marapong village. Residents are affected by the poor air quality and many do not have electricity even though they live in the shadow of the power station. (James Puttick)

“In that case, the returns will be much diminished and the pipeline empty. The pipeline is a public investment [by a department that is on its knees]. Its construction amounts to another substantial subsidy to the coal industry. The [dirty] water will be costly unless the

corporate lobbies persuade the government to double down on the subsidy with a cheap tariff,” Hallowes says.

The footprint of the pollution that will be exported is global, says Greyling. “Here, we will have more dirty air, more water scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. If in Jo’burg it’s 1.5 degrees hotter, it’s not the end of the world. But here, if you already have 40 degrees in the shade, that’s a hell of a lot. Climate change is magnified to a huge extent because it’s so hot and dry already.”

Munnik argues in his paper that the proposed pipeline will decrease water in the Hartbeespoort Dam, “increasing the risk of oxygen depletion events, leading to fish kills and hammering what’s left of the aquatic ecosystem in the dam, making the dam unattractive to tourists and residents”. 

But if it doesn’t proceed, the flue gas desulphurisation “scrubbers would not be installed at Medupi and sulphur dioxide pollution would continue uncontrolled, as is happening at present”.

Hardus Steenkamp, a farmer in the area, tells how because of the effects of climate change, more farmers have moved into ecotourism and game farming. 

“Great amounts of money have been spent by farmers on fences for wildlife and other infrastructure. As well as the negative influence which this [mining] has on the environment, the industry cannot survive if a coal mine is developed on a neighbouring farm.”

The Waterberg, home to an abundance of tree and wildlife species, is such thankful land, says Greyling. “If you get a little bit of rain, something grows.” 

Fighting for its protection can be a hard, lonely battle. “Sometimes, you stand in town meetings all alone — one crazy white woman with her knitting and wool bag — especially in a dorpie like this. My friends say, ‘how can I fight these power stations and coal mines because I’m taking the food from their children’s’ mouths’ or ‘we need power’. 

But, she says, “Development, by definition, should be making something better than it is. Bringing a coal mine here is not development, it’s degradation.”


What is the MCWAP-2A?

This is the second phase of the Mokolo-Crocodile River (West) Water Augmentation Project. The MCWAP-2A project is in the Waterberg district municipality in Limpopo. It comprises the construction of the Vlieepoort abstraction works on the Crocodile River (West), low and high lift pumping stations, desilting works, balancing storage facilities, a bulk raw water pipeline to the Steenbokpan and Lephalale areas and a river abstraction and flow monitoring and river management system. The project is located on part of the Crocodile River and its tributaries to monitor abstraction from the Crocodile River section between the Hartbeespoort Dam downstream to Vlieepoort. It will be a pipeline in excess of 1m in diameter and it is designed to transfer 75-million cubic metres of water a year. Raw water will be abstracted from the Crocodile (West) River at Vlieepoort and pumped to Lephalale, according to the department of human settlement, water and sanitation.


Eskom said years ago coal would kill people

Air pollution caused by Eskom’s coal power stations in Mpumalanga and Limpopo killed at least 20 people a year, according to a 2014 article in the Mail & Guardian

It reported that Eskom had said this figure could rise to 617, with 25 000 people admitted to hospital when all its coal-fired power stations, including Kusile and Medupi, are up and running. 

The disclosures were made in Eskom reports commissioned in 2006.

The power utility had to release the reports after the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) filed a Promotion of Access to Information Act application.

In Mpumalanga, air pollution (including that from Eskom) killed about 550 people a year, with 117 200 being admitted to hospital, according to the Eskom-commissioned reports.

Burning coal as household fuel, the M&G reported, was responsible for half of these deaths and Eskom behind 3% of the deaths. 

The Eskom report for Limpopo noted that when Medupi became operational, of those living within 25km of the plant were at risk of dying or being admitted to hospital. The power station would result in premature deaths doubling from 1.5 to three and respiratory hospital admissions increasing from 144 to 300 a year. 

The nearby Matimba plant was already killing 1.2 people a year. The M&G reported how the use of flue gas desulphurisation technology would lead to the avoidance of about one mortality and 50 respiratory hospital admissions a year.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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