South Africa’s Department of Water and Environmental Affairs (DWEA) has taken action against a fertilizer company, and laid criminal charges against its owners following lethal pollution of the Selati River, a tributary of the Olifants (elephants) River near the world-renowned Kruger National Park.
Acidic water discharged into the river when a tailings dam used in Bosveld Phosphate’s mining operations overflowed after heavy rain, polluting the river and killing thousands of fish in a stretch of water more than 15 km or 9 miles long. While animals do not appear to have been affected, the Park’s scientific research service’s unit has predicted there will be “major environmental damage.”
The incident that lead to criminal charges for the pollution in Kruger National Park occurred late December last year at the peak of the tourist season. As a result, camps that depend on water from the Olifants River were forced to use back-up borehole water. While water quality was not affected, water restrictions were immediately put into place, and water was discharged from the Blyde River Dam in an attempt to dilute the pollution of the highly acidic water that measured a pH level of 1.5 (7 being the desired neutral measurement).
Just a week prior to this it was reported that Bosveld Phospates was set to retrench 300 people – close to half its workforce – due to “persistent financial difficulties” resulting from reduced demand, coupled with a global oversupply of fertilizer.
A statement issued by South African National Parks (SANParks) Monday stated that investigations were continuing and both the Selati and Olifants Rivers were being monitored continuously to “evaluate the scale of the degradation.” An in-depth investigation into environmental impacts would also be conducted.
The Olifants River is Kruger National Park’s main water resource, and already recognized as “a river in crisis” even before the latest pollution. Acid mine drainage (AMD) has long been a problem because of the high incidence of high-sulphur coal fields and discharges from other mines. AMD not only compromises water quality, but also reduces water flows, and has been known to have killed crocodiles and terrapins.
Nearly a decade ago, in 2005 an environmental impact assessment undertaken by the Department of Water Affairs warned of the consequences to ecotourism in the Park if adequate good quality water supplies were not made available from the Olifants River system. This would also impact long-term expansion and diversification of the local economy, the report stated.
In April 2011 it was revealed to the internal Parliamentary Monitoring Group that makes information discussed in committees available to the public, that of the R846-billion (US$80-billion) allocated to upgrade the country’s water infrastructure, R16 175 000 (US$1 520 611) would be spent on the Olifants River Water Resource Development Project over the following three years. This is currently regarded as South Africa’s most important mega infrastructure water project.
A report released by Water Affairs in March 2013 stated that a strategy to 2035 was being developed for the Olifants River Water Supply System. A major concern was ensuring that acid mine drainage water was treated to “an acceptable standard” before it was allowed to drain into the river system. It is not yet known when the owners of Bosveld Phosphate will appear in court to face their criminal charges for polluting Kruger National Park.
By Penny Swift