|2012 07 18 Leaving a bitter taste|
Last week residents of the small Mpumalanga town of Carolina were assured by water & environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa their tap water was safe after they had to resort to court to enforce their right to clean drinking water.
But by the beginning of this week the local municipality had still not been able to offer reassuring test results.
The water crisis in Carolina, which has dragged on for over six months, could be a warning signal of what will happen in other areas, if action isn't taken.
Residents were driven to take local and national government to court after their tap water became undrinkable in December. The municipal water treatment plant, which was already handicapped by years of high staff turnover, could no longer cope with a sharp increase in levels of pollution by local coal mines.
According to Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE) spokesman Koos Pretorius, it is only a matter of time before other towns such as Middelburg, Breyton, Ermelo and Belfast encounter the same problem. The sulphate levels in Middelburg water are already approaching 500mg/litre, which is the maximum considered safe in SA.
For a town the size of Middelburg, JoJo tanks will not be a practicable solution, Pretorius says.
Signs of Carolina's creaking infrastructure were evident several years ago. In November 2008 over 1000 people in the Albert Luthuli municipality were treated for diarrhoea. Officials said recent heavy rains had diluted the chlorine in the water treatment plant. Another, similar incident had happened a year previously, also after heavy rains.
This year's crisis has been traced to heavy minerals from mining, which has made the water acidic. Pretorius says sustained exposure to elevated sulphate levels in water affects people's absorption of essential minerals such as zinc and selenium. Selenium is particularly important to people who are HIV/Aids compromised, and Aids incidence is high around Carolina.
Last week the FSE and the Silobela Concerned Community, supported by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), won an order in the North Gauteng high court compelling the Carolina municipality to provide potable water within 72 hours and take measures to ensure it is supplied through the water services system.
The situation has highlighted serious problems, by no means new, that need to be addressed urgently.
The mines have to be policed closely to prevent pollution of increasingly scarce water resources and if they do, they must pay whatever it takes to fix the damage. Earlier this month the North Gauteng high court ruled Harmony Gold Mining was still responsible for water pollution from a mine it sold in 2008.
It is very difficult to force small operators and closed mines to meet their environmental responsibilities. But two of the four coal mines identified by the department of water affairs (DWA) as responsible for the water contamination at Carolina are BHP Billiton's closed Union Mine and Xstrata's recently sold Tselentis Colliery. Both BHP Billiton and Xstrata claim to have a commitment to water conservation.
In response to the directive BHP Billiton received in March, it arranged a site visit by water officials to the defunct and rehabilitated Union Colliery and made written representations setting out the steps it has taken to prevent pollution of the water resources around Carolina, says manager for communications Kesagee Nayager. Billiton is confident it has not contributed to this problem.
Xstrata Coal SA sold Spitzkop and Tselentis to Msobo Group last year, communications manager Gugulethu Maqetuka says. Before that, Xstrata secured integrated water use licences for both mines. "We have co-operated with the DWA fully on all water related matters concerning the mines," she adds.
But the problem cannot be blamed entirely on the mines.
Municipal inefficiency in providing infrastructure services to rate-paying residents is widespread, reflecting lack of skills and the ANC's "jobs for pals" approach to local government. There's a huge gap between what the national government is promising voters and what local governments are delivering, which is the root of ongoing violent service delivery protests around the country.
Even many national government departments are completely unable to enforce a first-class body of law. For example, skills shortages within the DWA have resulted in a huge backlog in processing mines' applications for water use licences. In an attempt to speed it up, the DWA is now granting some water licences without the necessary public participation, Pretorius says.
Government often reacts defensively to criticism instead of taking action. The North Gauteng court declined to enforce a costs order against the DWA because it had provided the necessary funds to the Carolina municipalities to deal with the problem and because the constitution clearly separates the responsibilities of national and local government.
Nevertheless, Molewa complained to the media that "there is a war against the state here" since it was government institutions that were cited by the FSE and Carolina residents, not the mines.
LRC attorney Naseema Fakir, who acted for Silobela and the FSE, says the reason government was cited and not the mines was that it is government's constitutional mandate to provide water. An order requiring the mines to clean up would not have had the same urgency as one compelling the authorities to provide water.
"If government sees this as a war it is misguided," she says. "We hope to work with government."
The most shameful feature of the Carolina water crisis was how 17000 people, who are voters and taxpayers, were let down by mining businesses, local and national government. It was only thanks to the efforts of poorly funded idealists in the nongovernmental sector - in this case, the LRC and the FSE - that Carolina residents were able to enforce their basic rights through the courts.