More mines operate without water licences

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 11 June 2010

A reply to a Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary question has revealed that 125 mines in South Africa are operating without a valid water licence. While the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs claims to have a plan to expedite water licences for mines that have applied for these rights, the question to be asked is how are mines even allowed to begin operating if they do not have permission from the start to use water and discharge it thereafter back into water courses? And why are they allowed to continue to operate when it is known they do not have a water licence, especially in cases where no attempt has been made by mines to even apply for a mining licence? The situation around water use licences for mines is rotten and requires improved interventions by government before mines begin operating.

Untreated acid water

The figure of 125 mines operating without valid water licences is in fact higher than the figure of 104 mines in this situation which was provided in the reply to a similar parliamentary question last year. It is not clear why this is the case, but is most likely as a result of new mines coming into operation over this period. The greatest number of mines operating without water licences is in Mpumalanga where 54 mines use and discharge water without the necessary authorisations. Gauteng has 28 mines in a similar situation, while KZN and Limpopo have 12 each, and North West province 10. The Minister has revealed that 118 of these mines are in the process of applying for a water licence, while 7 have not yet applied, but continue to operate. The figures reveal that Mpumalanga’s water resources may be under severe threat from mining, both in terms of water availability for competing users and in terms of availability of water of a suitable quality. Last year there were 13 mines in Mpumalanga operating without water licences, now there are 54.

There are two crucial points that need to be made. Firstly, where is the necessary coordination by the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Water Affairs? For over a year now the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs has been talking about liaising with the Minister of Mineral Resources about a cooperative authorisation that would ensure that a water use licence is granted before mining can commence. It is not clear, if and when, this will happen. It is difficult to see how the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs would have the guts to deny a mine a water licence after the mine has already begun operating. The Department of Water Affairs prefers persuasion by which officials issue directives to mines to comply with the relevant regulations and then to correct their actions by applying for a licence. However, the Minister and her Department have not attempted to close any mine down for operating without a water licence, which seems to suggest that, at least in some cases, the provision of a valid water licence is merely a formality and not a matter of substance.

Secondly, one wonders how thorough the process of granting water licences are. A thorough process, which would comply with administrative justice, would have, among other things, the necessary consultative processes, an evaluation and assessment process and an appeal process. Other water users who may be affected by a particular mine’s use of water have a right to be part of the process, to have access to the mine’s application and to be able to comment if so desired. This is not happening in practice, and it appears the Department is being soft on mines, while inconsiderate of other users, most particularly agricultural users. The Department has issued a Best Practice Guideline for the mining sector in an attempt to help them comply with the water use licensing process, but there is no real attempt by the Department to ensure the guidelines are fully complied with.

In processing the water use licences for mines that are operating without valid licences, the Minister must show that she will defend the integrity of the licensing process by denying licences, after application, to at least some mines who cannot show that they would operate in ways that would do least harm to the environment. What she must not do is reinforce the view that mines can begin operations without a water licence going forward, by simply approving the licences for all mines that have already begun operations.

Gareth Morgan, Shadow Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs

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