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Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

In February, Barbara Creecy, the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, said during the state of the nation debate in the National Assembly how climate change poses significant risks to South Africa’s current and future socioeconomic development. 

Yet her dismissal of eight appeals against the second phase of the proposed Mokolo and Crocodile West water augmentation project runs counter to her stance for the need to act on the climate crisis.

As we report this week, the R15‑billion project is intended to pump dirty water from Gauteng to the water-scarce Waterberg in Limpopo to enable the development of new coal infrastructure — coal mining and coal power — in the Waterberg coalfields.

The climate impacts of the fossil fuel developments that the water project hopes to unleash are significant and symbolise the last-ditch scramble for the last spoils of a sunset industry. 

Creecy’s refusal to consider these impacts, raised by some of the appellants, is not only misguided but unlawful.

The project is intended, too, to supply water to Eskom’s highly water-intensive flue gas desulphurisation technology for the Medupi coal-fired power station that will limit sulphur dioxide emissions, and to Matimba Power Station in Lephalale, the heart of the Bushveld.

Medupi, parliament heard in 2017, produced three times more carbon emissions than the whole of Britain, exposing communities to exacerbated health risks. Medupi’s pollution kills about 364 people every year, according to a 2017 study.

The pipeline project shows while South Africa has made climate commitments, the government is still intent on subsidising the fossil fuel industry causing the climate crisis. 

One study shows how the government continues to back the fossil fuel-based power that underpins its coal-based electricity system — providing $5.7- billion annually in subsidies. With this pipeline project, the government should not be spending billions to enable unnecessary, expensive coal infrastructure that will soon be rendered obsolete.

For the rural communities in the Waterberg, water scarcity is a real and desperate issue, worsened by the effects of climate change. They tell how during a drought in Lephalale, Medupi and Matimba are the first to get the water from the Mokolo Dam, the region’s only water source, while local residents have to wait their turn. Locals believe that the pipeline project will not put more water in their taps.

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs. We have alternate energy options — that create jobs, give us a predictable electricity supply and don’t kill people. 

Let’s stop talking and start doing. Our future depends on it. 

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