Coal Mining and Strategic Water Source Areas

Note: these blogs appeared for the first time as columns in the Newcastle Advertiser (Caxton)

Acid mine drainage destroying a once beautiful river

“Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land.  Well, they dug for the coal till the land was forsaken then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”  John Prine wrote these poignant lyrics in 1971 whilst lamenting the devastating impact coal mining was having in Kentucky. 

Coal mining is arguably the dirtiest form of mining leaving significant environmental and social legacy impacts in its path.  It’s no surprise that Prine was horrified by the destruction it caused.  How is this relevant to us in South Africa?  Some of our most important biodiversity-rich areas are located within what are called Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSA’s) – the 10% of South Africa’s surface area that provides 50% of the water critical for our survival.  Given the reality of climate change, it is predicted that increased strain will be put on SWSA’s to provide water in the future. 

Increasingly coal mining companies (particularly the smaller mining houses) seek to extract coal deposits wherever they may be found.  The long term impacts from mining in SWSA’s are massive and include acid mine drainage into river systems killing the life therein and rendering the water unsafe for use.  Technologies exist to treat some impacts but are not economically sustainable.  Additionally, given that the acceleration of climate change is driven primarily by our addiction to fossil fuel use (such as the use of coal for electricity production), extracting more of these destructive minerals is a really bad idea.

Perhaps it is time regulatory decisions were made in the interests of everyone and prevented coal mining in our SWSA’s?  After all, you can’t survive without water and you can’t drink coal…

*Angus Burns is a professional conservationist and works for WWF South Africa – he writes these blogs and columns in his personal capacity*

An abandoned coal mine and eroding channel through slag heaps

Comments are closed.