By Jeffrey Moyo
Mariette Lieferink has been dubbed South Africa’s climate change hero and she is prominently featured as the country’s leading environmental activist in South African media.
Now, moved by the heavy contribution of the country’s mines to climate change, Lieferink, who heads the Federation for a Sustainable Development (FSE), is working flat out to clean up the hugely polluted mining areas of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, which is also one of the world’s 50 largest urban areas.
According to Lieferink, climate change is a potential disaster, poised to trigger the ‘toxic time bomb’ left by over 120 years of mining, particularly across Johannesburg, which is also South Africa’s industrial hub.
Johannesburg has been the epicentre of the giant South African mining industry since gold was discovered here in 1880. More than 40,000 tonnes of gold have been mined from the Witwatersrand Basin in the more than 120 years since then.
Currently, says FSE, Johannesburg is surrounded by mining dumps, toxic lakes, radiological hotspots, leaking pipelines, spillages and gaping holes in the ground,
Despite the UN Sustainable Development Goal to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, experts here say that much activity around mining in South Africa is still leaving trails of environmental damage, impacting negatively on the country’s environment and contributing to climate change.
“More and more mining dumps, alongside the destruction of trees amid growing mining activities here, continues to pose a threat to rainfall patterns in this country,” Sikhumbuzo Thembu, a South African government climate change officer, told IDN.
“Most stretches of land here in Johannesburg are bright yellow and white, and some with crusts of toxic waste from old copper mines,” Thulasizwe Zwane, an independent climate change expert based in Johannesburg, told IDN.
“There are also emerging brickworks producing radioactive building blocks using the waste of mines, while giant waste heaps from gold mines are spread around here with underground shafts and tunnels mostly flooded with millions of litres of some of the most toxic waste in the world,” he said.
According to Zwane, climate change is increasing the volume of rainwater, resulting in mines flooding more frequently and water courses and rivers becoming even more polluted.
For ordinary South Africans like Zweli Khoza, a high school teacher who lives in the South Africa township of Soweto, climate change impacts resulting from mining are directly affecting many people.
“Here we live near some mine dumps, where we are exposed to high concentrations of cobalt, zinc, arsenic and cadmium, all known carcinogens, as well as high levels of radioactive uranium. The government-built houses we live in were set up next to radioactive dumps,” Khoza told IDN.
“When it rains here, the ground becomes a yellow river with children playing in it, rendering themselves susceptible to diseases,” he added.
According to Zwane, the worse is yet to come.
“Climate change will lead here to bouts of heavier rains, so the run-off will be worse. Communities are in serious danger, and they are unaware.”
In 2014, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs reported that the mining and quarrying sector had been identified as being at considerable risk from the secondary impacts of climate change.
According to the department, terrifying levels of air, ground and water pollution have been recorded since 2014 as a result of growing mine dumps.
Over the years, medical experts here have warned that the mine dumps probably lie behind an upsurge in cancers, mutations or respiratory diseases.
“Lots of diseases owing to mine dumps have been on the rise over the years here, but it has been impossible to pin the blame on individual mine companies,” Bheki Dlamini, a South African Safety and Health Officer, told IDN. Meanwhile, “it is common to find children playing in the midst of mine dust, exposing themselves to diseases.”
“You should know that several mining companies here in South Africa left gaping holes in the ground and gaping holes in the communities they operated from for many years,” he added. “They have had no regard for ordinary people while there has been apparently no enforcement of law against such wayward companies.”
With mining dumps scattered all over Johannesburg, climate change experts like Zwane are warning that “South Africa has stepped into the danger zone in the history of climate change.”