Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the relevant authority in South Africa to ensure that the cumulative impacts of the coal industry on the water quality of catchment areas remain compliant with national and international standards.

HRW also urged the country’s government to commence rehabilitation of recently closed mines, derelict and ownerless mines in line with regulatory requirements.

The calls were made in a report titled The Forever Mines: Perpetual Rights Risks from Unrehabilitated Coal Mines in Mpumalanga, South Africa, which documented the threats to communities from coal mines in Mpumalanga province that have not been properly cleaned up.

The report noted that the government has not made progress with regard to addressing the dangers of abandoned coal mines, and that the industry, through its inaction, has created ongoing problems that affect communities’ safety and health.

According to the report, Mpumalanga residents described receiving no information from local, provincial, or national governments about the risks posed by unrehabilitated mines and did not have access to basic information needed to understand the health risks, including on water quality, extent of accidents, or the location of abandoned mines.

Data from HRW shows that around 80 percent of South Africa’s  greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from its energy supply of which 70 percent of South Africa’s electricity is generated from coal.

South Africa also had an estimated 6,100 mines designated as derelict and ownerless as of 2021, data from the HRW report shows.

Abandoned mines impact nearby communities in multiple ways, including releasing highly acidic water laced with heavy metals that can pollute surrounding ground and surface water used for household needs.

The report shows that South Africa’s unrehabilitated mines are often located near densely populated communities that themselves grew rapidly because of the perceived opportunities that the mines presented.

‘So far, the South African government has not taken adequate steps to ensure coal-mining companies rehabilitate mine sites despite the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) requiring companies to do so’, the report said.

‘The national government’s lack of action in tackling the many unrehabilitated coal mines and other coal infrastructure in Mpumalanga and other locations across South Africa poses risks for the residents of those communities.

‘In Carolina, municipal infrastructure had become severely corroded from AMD and left water in the town unsafe for human consumption.

‘This needs to change. The government should ensure mines are rehabilitated to the level required by law and that the costs of the cleanup are borne by the mining company’.

The organisation also called on the government to take measures to secure abandoned coal mines to prevent public access, including by restricting access through fencing and erecting warning signs at abandoned mine sites.

Photo source: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko


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