A Source of Life... Threatened


By Langavi Makaringe

Mpumalanga province, South AfricaLake Chrissie is one the cleanest water bodies and home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in South Africa. There are many wetlands around the area and four major national tributaries flow into the lake.

Lake Chrissie, like many other water sources in Africa and in developing countries across the globe, is under threat. Scientifically intriguing and biologically valuable as it is, the area around Lake Chrissie is also considered economically important for the coal mining industry. Proposed opencast, or open-pit, coal mining within the catchments of the Mpumalanga Lake District in South Africa would threaten many unique wetlands and large bodies of fresh water, leading to concern that groundwater could be severely polluted and the natural hydrological functioning of the wetland systems destroyed. Construction of a railway near the site is also part of the plan so that the coal and the workers can be transported easily.

Major water pollutants due to coal mining include:

  1. Water-soluble inorganic pollutants, such as acids, salts and toxic metals, are deposited into water bodies through seepage and dumping. Large quantities of these compounds make water unfit to drink and unsuitable habitat for aquatic life.
  2. Suspended sediment depletes the water’s light absorption therefore reducing levels of photosynthesis in aquatic plants. The sediment particles spread dangerous compounds such as dissolved metals through the water.
  3. Some metals result in water-soluble radioactive compounds which can cause cancer, birth defects and genetic damage.

Acid Mine Drainage

Lake ChrissieAcid mine drainage could be devastating in this hydrologically sensitive area. The rocks associated with coal contain iron pyrite, which reacts with water and oxygen during and after mining to produce several undesirable chemicals, including sulphuric acid. The acidified water also leaches heavy metals such as manganese, copper and zinc and becomes aluminium-enriched. The acid mine drainage can displace fresh groundwater in the surrounding area and result in acidic and saline soils, making conditions unsuitable.

Once started, the process of pyrite oxidation could take centuries to complete. Studies at backfilled opencast coal mines to the west of the Lake’s district show that the mines filled with water five to ten years after closure resulted in polluted water emerging onto the surface. Any pollution entering the Chrissie Lake might impact the other rivers which flow into the lake. Accumulation of toxins over time will eventually destroy all aquatic life resulting in a sterile, toxic pool.Acid mine drainage, which often results from open-pit mining, could be devastating in this hydrologically sensitive area. The rocks associated with coal contain iron pyrite, which reacts with water and oxygen during and after mining to produce several undesirable chemicals, including sulphuric acid. The acidified water also leaches heavy metals such as manganese, copper and zinc and becomes aluminium-enriched. The acid mine drainage can displace fresh groundwater in the surrounding area and result in acidic and saline soils.

Once started, the process of pyrite oxidation could take centuries to complete. Studies at backfilled opencast coal mines to the west of the Lake’s district show that the mines filled with water five to ten years after closure resulted in polluted water emerging onto the surface. Any pollution entering Lake Chrissie might impact the other rivers which flow into the lake. Accumulation of toxins over time will harm aquatic life.

Advantages of mining and construction:

  • Job creation
  • Better transportation
  • Affordable electricity

Disadvantages of mining:

  • Aquatic life destruction
  • Increase in water-borne diseases
  • Pollution of a large water source
  • Formation of slime dams
  • High salinity in surrounding soil, compromising agriculture
  • Clean water shortages
  • Toxins in the air
  • Formation of acid rain
  • Non-renewable form of energy

Effects on Drinking Water

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa in which a majority of people have access to clean drinking water from secure sources. Lake Chrissie is one of the purest water sources in the country; I have the privilege to open my tap and be certain that I will receive clean, high quality water to drink. However, many water sources have been negatively impacted by mining activities throughout the country. There are still some people in parts of South Africa who walk for miles so that they can gain access to water. Mining not only pollutes the water that is relied upon for drinking, washing, irrigation and other uses, it also makes the air very toxic resulting in respiratory infections. Balancing economic development and environmental protection is a challenge not only in South Africa, but around the world.

My experience in the United States has been a great one. I had the opportunity to test the water quality of a stream at the E.C. Lawrence Park. Even though the stream is located in a residential area, I was amazed to find that it was healthy. Developing countries can learn from the successes and mistakes of the developed world so that we can all have equal privileges. Areas like Lake Chrissie will need to be secured in order for clean water to be protected.

Water flows, continuously moving past borders that people may not be able to cross without a visa or permission to enter. The quality of our air and our waterways affect us and others in tremendously important ways.

Langavi lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was an intern with NVSWCD while studying in the United States through a U.S. State Department scholarship.

Flamingos of Lake Chrissie


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