South Africa’s Greatest Environmental Challenge: Acid Mine Drainage

South Africa’s coal-energy producers and regulators must contend with a major water quality concern: acid mine drainage. After a coal mine is abandoned, it often leaches highly acidic water, which then flows into surrounding ecosystems.

To date, more than 6,000 mines have been abandoned in South Africa, with damages from acidic water requiring an estimated 30bn rand in clean-up costs nationwide, according to a WWF report. Marius Keet, from South Africa’s water and sanitation department has said that acid mine drainage is South Africa’s greatest environmental challenge, while acknowledging that coal will remain a major growth driver for South Africa’s developing economy.

The best course of action, according to the WWF’s Christine Colvin, is long–term planning. She recommends banning mining activities in the Vaal river basin’s water source areas – lands at high elevation that collect rainfall and feed the rest of the river system. Areas with existing mining operations should be restored to a more natural state through interventions including water and soil treatment and replanting. Mined areas should then be improved further, Colvin argues, to compensate for acid-drainage related damages.

From a government perspective, Keet recommends a series of solutions to deal with the acid mine issue. South Africa’s presidential cabinet has already approved a series of short and medium-term preventative measures, including improved water-flow management in and out of abandoned mines, treatment and water quality improvements, and more monitoring and research.

Different parts of the Vaal river basin will require different local-level interventions—enlarging water treatment plants, installing new technology, and expanding existing water infrastructure such as pipelines and pumping stations.

In cases where mines are already abandoned, Keet recommends that polluters be pushed to pay clean-up costs rather than the government, although he admits it can be difficult to track companies who have gone bankrupt and severed ties with specific mining sites.


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