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  • Credit: © Greenpeace Africa / Mujahid Safodien

  • Credit: © Greenpeace Africa / Mujahid Safodien

  • Credit: © Greenpeace Africa / Mujahid Safodien


Boom and Bust in the Waterberg: New groundWork report on coal megaprojects

12 March 2019 at 2:06 pm

Building Medupi has not only broken Eskom and threatened the national economy, it has also had a devastating impact on local communities and environments and even on the local economy of Lephalale. The construction boom brought in a flood of money, a fast-rising tide that sank more boats than it lifted. The tide is now going out and leaving the town stranded in the debris of broken promises and false hopes.

Boom and Bust in the Waterberg is the title of a new report from the environmental justice organisation groundWork[1] which will be launched in Lephalale on Wednesday 13 March. It documents the history of coal mega projects that have reshaped this remote corner of the country.

The report stretches and spreads along 5 decades of unsustainable economic climaxes that lead to socio-economic explosions and meltdowns, which manifest to bigger problems and little solutions, if any. So much that when one connects the dots, the output is a cycle of poverty creation, squandered resources, environmental carnage, and questionable decisions from the power-tower.

The first boom was in the 1980s when the original Grootegeluk mine and the very large Matimba power station were built. At the peak of construction, they brought in 10,000 or 12,000 workers and, at the end, left a typically divided apartheid town with Marapong, the black township, literally at the foot of Matimba.

The second boom kicked off in 2007 with a major expansion of Exxaro’s Grootegeluk, to create one of the largest open cast mines in the world, and the construction of Medupi, advertised by Eskom as the fourth biggest power station in the world. Lephalale’s population more than doubled but the urban infrastructure crumbled. The boom benefited the rich at the cost of the poor and entrenched brutally unequal gender relations.

At the peak, between 22,000 and 26,000 workers, mostly men, were employed on the two projects. Nevertheless, unemployment rose from 18% in 2001 to 22% in 2011 as thousands more flocked to the area. The workers are now being ‘demobbed’. At the end of 2018, there were supposed to be 7,000 left. Unemployment is again rising sharply, shops are closing and the boom time property market has crashed.

Meanwhile, the Mokolo River has been irreversibly damaged and the air is heavily polluted by burning coal discard heaps at the mine, dust from coal stockpiles and ash dumps, and the enormous emissions from Matimba and Medupi. The table shows emissions at full production – assuming Medupi ever gets there.

Table 2: Matimba and Medupi air emissions (tones/year)

Matimba 22 733 225 309 262 67 592 4 904
Medupi 30 000 000 448 616  61 382  4 092
Combined 52 733 225 757 878 128 974 8 996

A third boom is now promised as the Waterberg is punted as South Africa’s next coal frontier. The coal bosses dream of ripping out hundreds of square kilometres of the delicate bushveld. National government aims to “unlock the mineral wealth of the Waterberg” by delivering Gauteng’s sewer water to this arid area and massively expanding the coal line from Lephalale to the Highveld and on to Richards Bay for export. Local government hopes for a third boom to absorb the ill effects of the Medupi bust and as a new source of patronage.

For this, they must ignore air and water pollution; pretend that climate change is small change; and maintain ignorance of the impacts on people.

This report argues that coal’s next frontier looks more like coal’s last ditch. It is facing stiff resistance on a battlefield for our energy future and its own positions are crumbling. The projects that make up Boom 3 are floundering but the prospect still ‘sterilises’ the land for other uses and some may survive long enough to ruin more land before going bust.

As the impacts of climate change are increasingly devastating, and the Waterberg is particularly vulnerable, we conclude that developing more coal mines and power stations constitute climate crimes. More coal would also leave mountains of smoldering discard dumps and large ash heaps producing pollution at ground level.

We are particularly concerned that, having always avoided doing anything about SO2 pollution, Eskom is now avoiding compliance with minimum emission standards. It captures scientific research to justify not acting on pollution and has tried to keep its research under wraps. This puts people’s lives at risk.

Another energy future is necessary as a matter of survival and requires a rapid phase out of coal and a just transition to people’s power and a more equal society.

[1] groundWork is a non-profit environmental justice organization working primarily in Southern Africa in the areas of Climate & Energy Justice, Coal, Environmental Health, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals, and Waste. groundWork is the South African member of Health Care Without Harm and Friends of the Earth International.

groundWork, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, and Centre for Environmental Rights are environmental justice organisations that are part of the Life After Coal campaign, which aims to discourage the development of new coal-fired power stations and mines; reduce emissions from existing coal infrastructure and encourage a coal phase-out; and enable a just transition to sustainable energy systems for the people.


Media queries:

David Hallowes, Writer and Researcher, 083 262 4922 / [email protected]

Victor Munnik, Writer and Researcher, 082 906 3699 / [email protected]

Makoma Lekalakala, EarthLife Africa Johannesburg, 082 682 9177 / [email protected]