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A Tanzanian gold mine leaks polluted water into a major river. A mining town in Zambia is listed as amongst the most polluted places in the world. And a water pollution problem in South Africa that is caused by mining threatens national water resources. Khadija Sharife examines the hidden costs behind Africa's resource extraction reputation.

Africa has long been synonymous as the poster child of the resource curse. Illicit financial flows, often siphoned through corruption and mis-pricing, are estimated to cost the continent $200-billion annually. Flowing back are the weapons propping up autocratic regimes, with the ‘externalised’ or hidden cost of conflict pegged at more than $300-billion during the past two decades. Despite resource revenues fueling GDP, growth does not necessarily translate into development thanks to exploitative policies implemented by the ‘human’ resources at the helm of the continent’s extractive industries.

But the nature of the ‘curse’ extends beyond ‘blood minerals’ to that of another more widespread externalised cost taking place in countries like Tanzania and Zambia: pollution. Take Tanzania: Africa’s third largest gold producer holds more than 45 million ounces of gold, economically valued at $39-billion excluding extraction costs. Since 1998, production has increased from 1-2 tonnes annually to 50 tonnes, valued at US$876 per ounce (2008). And for every ounce of gold extracted, more than 78 tonnes of mining waste is created.

Like copper and silver, gold is found in rock containing sulphide minerals that when crushed and exposed to air and water forms sulphuric acid. The acidic water dissolves other toxic metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium found in surrounding ore. If not safely contained, acid mine drainage (AMD) - a process that continues as long as sulphides from mine waste, open pits, and tailings interact with air and water - leaches toxins into the ecosystem, stripping life from everything in its wake.

The issue rose to the fore in 2009 when a tailing pond owned by Barrick Gold Corporation’s North Mara mine leaked AMD into the Tigithe River, a tributary of Mara River discharging into the world’s largest tropical basin, Lake Victoria. The process continued for three months, from May to August, when the breached lining was replaced. Ninety per cent of Tanzania’s production takes place around Lake Victoria’s ‘gold belt’.

Though the government banned the use of Tigithe’s water for consumption (samples revealed toxic concentrations of nickel and lead 260 and 168 times higher than similar tests from 2002), no substantial further action was taken. This is unsurprising given the context: during the past decade Tanzania’s rent-seeking regime has lost $400-million in gold revenue due to tax evasion and low royalty rates. Tanzania’s gold mining contracts detailing the financial and environmental requirements even remained a secret from parliament as late as 2009, evidencing secrecy as one weapon of mass destruction.

Another weapon specific to gold mining is cyanide, used to extract gold from ore, releasing lethal metals such as mercury in the process, while breaking down into toxic compounds.

Montana’s Zortman-Landusky open pit mine was one of the first to pour cyanide over heaped ore as a means of dissolving gold. ‘Water treatment will have to go on for hundreds of years, possibly forever,’ said Montana state regulator, Wayne Jepson. Though using cyanide is common practice in the industry, the risks have encouraged Montana to ban it from new open pit mines while EU Members of the European Parliament approved a resolution concerning an EU-wide ban on cyanide by end 2011 - prompted by incidents such as Romania’s cyanide spill that leaked 130,000 cubic meters of tainted water through 150 miles of the Tisza-Danube River system (2000).

But 70 per cent of gold is mined in developing nations such as South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania. Can nations dependent on foreign investment individually, or collectively, motivate to set the standard?

‘Perhaps the issue should be high recovery of the cyanide used, better concentrations of the cyanide that is not recovered, stringent specifications for mining ponds and higher standards for water effluent treatment using existing and proven technology,’ said Muna Lakhani, coordinator of the Institute for Zero Waste in Africa (IZWA).

Currently, corporations subscribe to the standards of the voluntary International Cyanide Managament Code. Yet one aspect that the code fails to rigorously address is that of closure.

It is a lesson that Zambia’s Kabwe - a mining town inhabited by 300,000 people - has learnt the hard way. Kabwe, Zambia’s second largest city, had the dubious honour of being ranked as Africa’s most polluted city and the world’s fourth most polluted site thanks to the unregulated lead (800,000t) and zinc (1,800,000t) mining and smelter activities that took place from 1906 until 1994.

Kabwe’s Katondo township, for instance, evidenced levels of lead - a neurotoxin - as high as 10,000 parts per million, dispersed through run-offs and as wind-blown dust. The Zambian government, through the Zambian Consolidated Copper Mine Investment (ZCCM), claimed responsibility for decommissioning and rehabilitating the mine’s legacy - classified as toxic by the Kabwe Scoping and Design Study (KSDS). Kabwe’s rehabilitation is part of the broader Copperbelt Environment Project (CEP), largely funded by the World Bank.

Describing the Environmental Council of Zambia as ‘very weak’, the CEP revealed that: ‘Existing regulations are seldom enforced. The regulatory dispositions for the mining sector are currently so weak that they do not deter polluters…Identification and monitoring of environmental risks resulting from mining activities is often inadequate.’

Mining corporations operating in Zambia post-1994 were allowed to adhere to the Environmental Management Plan (EMP), taking precedence over national legislation, with little penalties save for on the spot fines of £17 and letters of warning. Like Tanzania, Zambia’s mining contracts remained secretive.

But while the legacy of ‘dirty gold’ and ‘killer copper’ is not intractable, externalised costs conceal the true impact from the public discourse, forcing the environment, communities and natural treasures such as the Serengeti Park located 10 kilometres northwest from Mara Mine to ‘subsidise’ the extractive industries.

But there is no more lethal example of AMD than South Africa, where the impact of pollution threatens not only the country’s water resources, but through the coal-focused energy complex, catalyses a domino effect. This occurs both directly, within the country, and indirectly, in neighbouring regions such as Lesotho ‘exporting’ water for South Africa’s electricity requirements. South Africa, in turn, also acts as exporters of dirty energy, supplying 45 per cent of regional energy needs, via Eskom, to client countries.

The root causes of AMD, described as the single most dangerous threat to South Africa’s environment, began with the exploitation and occupation of South Africa as a ‘resource colony’ for the British empire. The Witwatersrand region, mined for more than 100 years, is the world’s largest gold and uranium mining basin.

According to NGO Earthlife Africa, ‘A total of 43,500 tons of gold has been removed from the Witwatersrand area’, while between the 1950s and the first democratic election, ‘a total of 73,000 tons of uranium was mined.’ The result? A gaping mine tailings dams, comprised of waste material measuring 400 square kilometres in addition to six billion tonnes of pyrite (iron sulphide), ‘one of the substances, which, when exposed to air and water, produces acid mine water’. The ‘cradle of mankind’ has already been impacted by 40 million litres of AMD. While South Africa’s agricultural sector uses ten times the water utilised by mining houses (the former is estimated to use 7,920 million m3 per annum), the costs of mitigating the AMD, externalised by mining corporations, is projected at R360-billion in specialised water treatment plants over the next 15 years.

‘Addressing acid mine drainage will be expensive, but as long as most of the mining houses are still raking in billions of rands in profits every year, how can anybody argue that “we” cannot afford to fix the problem? The argument that the mining houses of today should not be held responsible for the problems created by their predecessors over a long period of time holds water with me only up to a point,’ said Stephanie de Villiers, author of the report titled ‘H20-C02 Energy Equations for SA’, produced by the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) to The Africa Report magazine.

Ironically, the cost of mitigation, which has yet to be forthcoming, mirrors that of Eskom’s new coal plan, set to create 40 new mines while drawing water from three strained catchment systems: the Vaal, Orange and Limpopo systems.

South Africa represents four per cent of Africa’s mass. Over 98 per cent of the country is classified as arid or semi-arid. The country, receiving an annual run-off of 40 mm (from a world average of 266mm), is described by scientists as one of the globe’s most water scarce nations. Over 80 per cent of rainfall precipitation is lost by way of evaporation in Africa itself, the driest of the world’s seven continents, with an annual run-off of 114mm. For South Africa, the estimate is more than 90 per cent. Meanwhile, less than 10 per cent is converted to river run-offs.

AEON’s report, written by de Villiers, shoots down government’s conservative estimates that future shortages will be in the range of two to 13 per cent. According to de Villiers, water demand will exceed availability by 33 per cent in 2025. Government, said de Villiers, did not take into account the reduced availability of water from pollution, in addition to global warming.

Water resources contaminated by AMD impacts the environment, the economy, chiefly agriculture, and has devastating consequences for the country’s second largest user-base - domestic consumers. Though the agricultural industry are allegedly seriously attempting to curb inefficiencies, mining houses appear concerned solely with making a profit.

De Villiers said the body appointed to look at the problem favours neutralisation as the best solution to the problem of AMD. ‘Certainly, it will be an economically viable solution, if logistics such as the reservoirs needed for the neutralization to be carried out in (continuously over a very long period of time) can be sorted out, which seems unlikely at the moment.

‘The proposals by corporations to step in with their proposed solutions have apparently been shot down, because they wanted to sell the cleaned water back to Rand Water, making a profit in the process.

‘I’m not sure why mining houses are allowed to pollute while making a profit, and corporations who want to clean up are apparently expected to do so without the benefit of making a profit,’ she said.

De Villiers was perplexed that government had not taken advantage of these circumstances to establish a state-owned enterprise that would have the potential to generate revenue that could be ploughed back into the state, claiming that government was bogged down by politics.

As predicted by hydrologist Garfield Krige in 1998, the Western Basin began decanting in 2002. leaching 15 mega litres per day. Meanwhile, the Central Basin may begin decanting at 60 mega litres per day within two and a half years, and the Eastern Basin, 82 mega litres per day in three years, once pumping ceases. Moreover, exploitation of gold resources (95 per cent exhausted) will no longer be viable if externalities or hidden costs are taken into account.

But it seems that mining corporations seeking closure certificates (exonerating companies from ecological liabilities) may have found a solution: through a reverse listing on the AIM board of the London Stock Exchange (under the umbrella of Watermark Global PLC), the Western Utilities Corporation will provide mining houses - the primary ‘owners’ of the initiative - to obtain both closure certificates as well as sell ‘treated’ water to 11 million consumers in Johannesburg via Rand Water.

‘The WUC deal will give all of the mine owners their closure certificates, and because of the way that government has fumbled the ball, it will also give them a guaranteed 16 per cent return on investment (much larger than many operating mines enjoy),” said Dr Anthony Turton, a water management and hydropolitics specialist suspended from South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) over a presentation on the looming water crisis.

In an interview with The Africa Report, Turton said that not only will mines evade the legal minimum requirement of the ‘polluter pays principle’ but also profit from it. ‘What’s more, that profit is all but guaranteed, because it will be underwritten by the state in the form of a mooted Public Private Partnership (PPP),’ he said. The deal allows for mining houses to access a R3.5-billion deal with no tendering process, as well as select ‘treatment’ that was described by Turton as the ‘least cost option’ via a process shrouded in secrecy, enabling the WUC to act as both consultant and reviewer.

Meanwhile, the government directive on the issue of AMD was significantly influenced by mining companies like Rand Uranium, who claimed that while the company would ‘comply with directives…there were aspects that were unachievable, and you can’t be expected to do something that is unachievable. And hence we have been working very closely with the department to get the directive and regulation around the water treatment plant to be achievable.’ (Rand Uranium CEO John Munro as told to Carte Blanche).

According to the hydrologist Garfield Krige, as told to Carte Blanche, the leniency of the directive was similar to that of raising the speed limit to 200km/h to accommodate speeders.


* This article is part of a special issue on water and water privatisation in Africa produced as a joint initiative of the Transnational Institute, Ritimo and Pambazuka News. This special issue is being published in English and in French.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.