A toxic tide of acid mine water is rising steadily beneath Johannesburg which, if left unchecked, could cause earth tremors, power blackouts and even cancer among residents, experts have warned.
The water is currently around 600 metres below the city’s surface but is rising at a rate of between 0.4 and 0.9 metres per day, meaning it could overflow onto the streets in just under a year and a half.
Because it would take 13 months to build a pumping station to clear the water, a legacy of 120 years of mining around Johannesburg, the state has just four months to find the millions of pounds needed to fund it.
It is currently locked in negotiations with multinational mining firms who have profited from the area’s rich natural resources over who should pay and how much.
Announcing a task force of experts set up to deal with the issue yesterday, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica said she was hoping that the potential dividends from tapping a new water supply for human consumption and use in industry would entice investors.
Acidic water is created when abandoned mine shafts and tunnels fill up with ground water which oxidises with heavy metals and the sulphide mineral iron pyrite, known as “fool’s gold” because of its yellowish hue.
Without effective drainage, it pours out into waterways, polluting crops and poisoning those living nearby.
According to water activist Mariette Liefferink, from the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the water is the same acidity of lemon juice or vinegar and poses an “enormous threat” to the city and its inhabitants.
Particularly at risk is the central business district which is built over the central basin and is home to some of Africa’s biggest firms. According to Miss Liefferink, the buildings they are housed would be damaged as the mine water corrodes steel and concrete.
She added that some of the city’s poorer residents are already living on top of mine dumps filled with carcinogenic metals which, if they react with the rising mine water, will pollute the entire water system.
“This environmental problem is second [in South Africa] only to global warming (Global warming is a scam.) in terms of its impact, and poses a serious risk to the area as a whole,” she told the water affairs portfolio committee.
Marius Keet, a senior government official in charge of water management, said that when the rainy season arrives in the coming months, the tide will begin rising faster and the results could be “catastrophic”.
Mr Keet said the recommended “environmental critical level” for the rising acid mine water was 150m below surface. The environmental impacts should it rise above this level, he said, include earth tremors and the possible formation of sinkholes.
Minister Sonjica has given her team of experts six weeks to find investors and come up with a viable rescue package which she will then take to the Cabinet for approval.
At present, the price tag of a new pump station and pipeline, and an upgrade to an existing waterworks – all of which are deemed essential for treating the acid mine water – is R218 million (£19m). However, the current budget only allows for investment of R14 million.
By Aislinn Laing, Johannesburg
Published: 5:19PM BST 06 Sep 2010
Source: The Telegraph