South Africa: Water lawsuit is ‘war against the state’

Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa says mention should have been made of the mines implicated in the pollution of Carolina’s water supply.

Water and Environmental Affairs

DEFENDANT: Edna Molewa speaking at the launch of the climate change policy at the Royal Elephant Hotel last week. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

THERE was evidence of a war against the state, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said yesterday, citing the legal action taken against her for failing to provide clean water to a Mpumalanga town whose dam was polluted, and not against the mines implicated in the pollution.

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) had taken legal action against state entities only, and excluded four Mpumalanga mines implicated in the pollution of a local town dam. The constitution guarantees “sufficient water” supply.

Ms Molewa was speaking after Gauteng North High Court judge Moses Mavundla gave the acting executive mayor of the Gert Sibande municipality, Tunu Agnes Mnisi, and municipal manager DV Ngcobo, 72 hours to provide the 17000 citizens of Carolina, in Mpumalanga, with potable water.

The dam that supplies water to Carolina was polluted with acid mine water in mid-January. Carolina residents said in court papers some of them have had to drink polluted water due to irregular supply.

“The mines were not cited in the court action.… You know, there is a war against the state,” said Ms Molewa at a Pretoria media briefing on Judge Mavundla’s ruling. The judge made no order against the Department of Water Affairs. However, she said the water had at last met South African water quality standards.

LRC attorney Naseema Fakir said the LRC and the LHR had considered adding the mines to the action, but it was felt that it was important to get water to Carolina’s residents as soon as possible. If the mines had been added as respondents, the application for an urgent court order would not have been granted.

“There is no war against the state,” she said.

LHR attorney Emma Algotsson said this was “most probably” the first case in which South Africans had taken the government to court over their constitutional right to a basic water supply, and that the action was precedent-setting.

Ms Molewa said the National Environmental Management Act, which encompassed the polluter-pays principle, allowed the Department of Water Affairs to collect from the four implicated mines the funds spent to clean up the town dam, where pollutants had settled on the dam bottom. She did not say when this would be done. More than R5m had been spent on getting potable water to Carolina.

The four mines are Northern Coal’s Mimosa Mine, a mine operated by Siphetha Coal, Union Colliery, owned by BHP Billiton , and a colliery operated by Xstrata Coal. Comment was not available from the mines yesterday afternoon.

“Currently we have laws that we have to comply with … you can end up with very harsh penalties,” Ms Molewa said. The mines are under investigation.

Acid mine water threatens the water supply, predominantly in Gauteng, but also in Mpumalanga, the Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Limpopo.

Koos Pretorius, director of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment and one of the applicants, said other Mpumalanga towns, including the larger Middelburg, faced similar problems. “I believe a crisis is looming … and I cannot see how the situation will be avoided,” he said.

South African regulations allowed 500mg of sulphates per litre of water, and results from Middelburg showed that the sulphate load in the town’s water was “touching 500mg/l”, he said.

There were plans to augment the efficiency of the catchment area’s infrastructure, Ms Molewa said.

Source: Business Day (By Sue Blaine)

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