South Africa Locks Onto Coal Despite Water Risks, Grim Market Trends

Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider
Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider

VRYHEID, South Africa — The chilly highland valleys of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, where coal mining and agriculture have coexisted since the late 19th century, have never been a geography of unfolding uncertainty, mystery, and menace like they are today.

South Africa’s allegiance to coal mining and coal-fired power generation in an era of rising concern about water supply and quality, and weakening national and global demand, is causing a furor in the country’s mining sector, affecting the financial community, and tearing holes in President Jacob Zuma’s veil of privilege and scandal.

The national turmoil, and a number of distinct regional conditions are tilting the balance of benefits and risks against new coal development in this area, say many residents. A deep two-year drought, the worst ever experienced in northern KwaZulu-Natal, emptied the drinking water reservoirs of Vryheid and nearby Paulpietersburg late last year. Thousands of town residents line up every morning to fill buckets with fresh water transported by tanker trucks from sources as far away as Pongola, a farm town set by the river of the same name that is 132 kilometers (82 miles) east of here.

More Mystery
Outside the hill towns, where springs and deep wells are still active, one coal company is drawing nearer to gaining a license to mine a new coal seam near Paulpietersburg. At least nine other companies have been quietly nosing around the steep slopes of the area’s tabletop mountains for unmined reserves. Markets for new reserves are thought to include coal-fired power stations in neighboring Mpumalanga province, and for export. Richards Bay, South Africa’s primary export shipping terminal, is 214 kilometers east (133 miles).

Senior managers of the South Africa Department of Mineral Resources declined to be interviewed for this article. The department’s weak public involvement mechanisms and Web site make it difficult for the citizens to follow new licensing applications. Farmers, acutely anxious that pollution from new coal mines could contaminate their water, have responded by establishing a new advocacy group, the Pongola River Catchment Protection Association, to keep abreast of mining activity on the ground, and to oppose new mineral development. On an overcast day earlier this year Mattie Beukes, a retired sugar cane grower, and Johann Boonzaaier, who manages the big water supply and transport network for Pongola’s sugar cane plantations, toured the quiet highland valleys to talk with farmers and civic officials. Their goal was to gain intelligence about any new coal mining activity. The fact-finding trip turned up no fresh evidence of new mines, but the region around Utrecht and Vryheid is alive with mining proposals not yet acted on.

Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider
Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider

“What we think about is how mining affects our water supply,” said Boonzaaier, the chief executive of the Impala Water Users Association, which supplies water to 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of sugar cane plantations in a dry valley closer to the Indian Ocean. “Any mine pollution from here, on the highlands, could flow to our water downstream.”

More Threat
Coal mining also mixes with another threat in this region. Like a cold fog, the sense of regional apprehension settling over the KwaZulu-Natal highlands grew more gloomy two years ago when Nico and Marcia Lens were murdered at their grain and cattle farm tucked into a highland slope outside Paulpietersburg. The unsolved murders of the 62-year-old farmer and his 52-year-old wife draw agriculture and energy together in an unexpected way. The Lens’ empty and unsold white farmhouse, which lingers barely visible beneath untrimmed trees at the end of a long dirt drive, lies close to the 2,000-hectare (4,942- acres) underground coal mine that Tholie Logistics, a small Johannesburg mineral company, proposes to develop.

The murders and mining applications have put farmers and other residents of this region on high alert for their personal security, and the safety of the land.

“No one knows why it happened. They were good people,” said Beukes, who started a new career last year as a land and water conservationist. “People are a little nervous. Things are happening here that make you worry. New coal mining in this area. It’s not a good use for the land.”

That sentiment is gaining more credibility in KwaZulu-Natal and across contemporary South Africa. Though there are a small group of out-of-work miners, some government officials, and a handful of mining executives that view new coal production in KwaZulu-Natal as a boost to job growth and local treasuries, that it is by no means a consensus opinion. In interviews with farmers and local residents, white and black, people objected to new mining.

— Keith Schneider

Read the full report at Circle of Blue here.

See all of the reports from South Africa at the Choke Point: South Africa page at Circle of Blue.

Earth Pushes Back and Paris Climate Conference Responds

On the road to the achievements of the Paris Climate Accord clocks ticked down the accumulating seconds to planetary peril at a UN climate meeting in Barcelona in 2009. Photo/Keith Schneider
On the road to  the Paris Climate Accord clocks ticked down the seconds to planetary peril at a UN climate meeting in Barcelona in 2009. Photo/Keith Schneider

Like divers surfacing above a sea of noise and ambivalence, negotiators in Paris on Saturday reached an agreement that commits nations to develop new energy strategies that hold “the increase in the average global temperature to well below 2 degrees C” and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C.”

The Paris accord is momentous for innumerable reasons, not the least of which is because it recognizes, at last, that three powerful and unyielding economic and ecological trends have merged to relentlessly push governments to act. All are prompted by the collision between the resource-abundant development approach of the 20th century, and the increasingly dire environmental conditions of the 21st.

Since 2008, as a correspondent reporting on the global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of diminishing freshwater reserves, I’ve been a frontline eyewitness on five continents to our rapidly evolving circumstances.

By far, the most important change in our circumstances is that Mother Earth is fuming. The planet is pushing back hard, very hard, against mankind’s industrial depradations. Hurricanes drowned two American cities.  Mammoth wildfires race across the West, burning hottest in the fuel-stoked forests where fire was deliberately suppressed. Toxic algae contaminates drinking water drawn from warmer and more polluted rivers and lakes all over the world.

A Rein of Global Disorder
An earthquake this year damaged 14 hydropower dams in Nepal. In June 2013, a vicious flood that scientists linked to climate change killed thousands of people in Uttarakhand, India and wrecked that Himalayan state’s hydropower sector. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

Bill McKibben, author and climate activist, led much of the global civic opposition that helped produce the Paris climate accord. Photo/Keith Schneider
Bill McKibben, author and climate activist, led much of the global civic opposition that helped produce the Paris climate accord. Photo/Keith Schneider

Deep droughts have been especially dangerous. Brazil’s largest city, America’s largest state, and nearly all of South Africa contend now with serious water scarcity. A 12-year dry spell in Australia’s food-producing Murray-Darling basin ended in 2010, but not before it caused the largest rice industry in the southern hemisphere to collapse. More than 1 million metric tons of rice vanished from world markets. Australia’s wheat growers, typically the world’s sixth largest exporters, managed to harvest just over half of the 20 million metric tons of grain they normally produced. Both harvest failures contributed to rising grain prices. Recall that the Arab Spring in 2010 was touched off by rising food prices. Continue reading “Earth Pushes Back and Paris Climate Conference Responds”

Paris Negotiators Expected to Reach First Global Climate Pact

India prepared a climate action plan in preparation for COP 21 in Paris. The world's second largest nation faces big choices in energy production. Photo/Keith Schneider
India prepared a climate action plan in preparation for COP 21 in Paris. The world’s second largest nation faces big choices in energy production. Photo/Keith Schneider

French authorities issued an alert on November 18 about the upcoming COP 21 Paris global climate summit that needed almost no explanation. Two big public demonstrations planned for November 29 and December 12 would not take place, French officials declared, because of the risk they would be terrorist targets.

The Paris Climate Conference, which opens on November 30 and closes December 11, is the 21st United Nations-sponsored annual global gathering meant to “stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.”

The conference is expected to attract close to 50,000 participants including 25,000 official delegates from government, intergovernmental organizations, UN agencies, and civil society. Some 140 heads of state, among them President Obama, are expected to attend. UN organizers say that the Paris conference will “for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.”

In a way the Paris terrorist attack, coming so close to the start of the summit, resembles the unexpected online hacking attack that disrupted the start of COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Then, as now, there was great hope that negotiators from nearly 200 nations would reach agreement on an international accord to limit climate emissions and slow the planet’s dangerous warming.

Different Feel From Copenhagen
Just days before the Copenhagen climate summit started, though, hackers broke into an email cache at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, a top climate research group. The hackers uploaded the stolen emails, which included candid private conversation between scientists, to several sites. Opponents of climate action, and broadcast newsrooms, pounced on the emails and indecorously parsed them for evidence of scientific uncertainty about the authenticity of the planet’s warming, doubts that the emails never discussed. Continue reading “Paris Negotiators Expected to Reach First Global Climate Pact”

Drought Influenced Syrian Civil War; So What?, Says U.S. Congress

A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state's hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider
A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state’s hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider

A paper earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States added fresh, peer-reviewed details about how a malicious four-year (2007 to 2010) drought in Syria played a role in touching off a calamitous civil war in 2011. The long rein of water scarcity ruined the farm economy, and drove over 1 million farmers and their families into unstable resource-scarce cities inspired by the Arab Spring to rebel against authoritarian rule.

The paper, like others before it, identifies climate change as the primary cause for the deepest and most economically disastrous drought in Syria’s history. The paper makes a powerful case for explaining that at least a portion of the anguish and fury of the civil war, the bedlam of obfuscation and bloody torment that has spread from Syria to Iraq to Beirut to Paris, is due to the Earth’s response to mankind’s ecological abuse.

This singular thought, that climate change can stir dangerous human conflict, is gaining salience across much of the world. One of its lone holdouts is the U.S. Congress, which apparently abhors science and prefers existing in an illusory landscape riven by the fury of its own ideology. More on that later.

We’ve Seen It Up Close
Those of us who’ve witnessed first hand the power of the Earth now to disrupt previously stable hydrological cycles, and cause global havoc, bear no such doubts.

California now reckons with a four-year drought that is putting grave pressure on groundwater supplies, and that several climatologists theorize is a facet of an enduring cycle of water scarcity unfolding in the American West.

California's four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America's largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider
California’s four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America’s largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider

Last year I reported on a vicious Himalayan flood that killed as many as 30,000 people and wrecked the hydropower dams of Uttarakhand, India. The cloudburst that dumped a foot of rain on high Himalayan shoulders, and caused the banks of a big alpine lake to rupture, was later deemed by scientists to be one of the year’s significant examples of the hazards of climate change. The economic and technical consequences of the Uttarakhand flood also caved in India’s hydropower construction sector, and damaged the country’s ability to diversify its electrical generating industry with carbon-free energy sources. Continue reading “Drought Influenced Syrian Civil War; So What?, Says U.S. Congress”

China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon

Shenzhen's high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city's economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shenzhen’s high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city’s economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHENZHEN, China – Although it is a distinctive way to view the world, to some extent the contemporary industrial age is a global narrative of substance abuse and recovery.

Sixty years ago the basic elements at the center of political and ecological concern were uranium and plutonium. Reckless Soviet and American atomic bomb blasts put so much deadly radiation in the atmosphere that milk and water became contaminated. Nations heeded the warnings of scientists and a global treaty to ban atmospheric testing was signed in 1963.

In the 1970s and 1980s the world came to recognize the malignant hazards of chlorine and its various chlorinated compounds used to manufacture pesticides, plastics, and coolants. A hole in the ozone opened over Antarctica. An industrial accident in Bhopal, India killed thousands of people. Trace residues showed up in food, in breast milk, and contaminated groundwater from leaking toxic waste dumps. Chlorine-based products were banned. Cleanup programs were instituted. Industrial safety improved.

Today, the world is steadily coming to agreement that carbon is the chemical compound putting life and economies at risk. Rejecting the views of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies in the United States, most national governments now heed the warnings of the climate-altering capability of carbon and are pivoting away from fossil fuel, its principle source.

The shift starts with coal and is starting to encompass oil. Coal production in the United States and western Europe is declining. Oil consumption in both regions is flat. Prices are sagging. Mexico banned new water drilling permits for shale oil and gas development near the Rio Grande Valley. Wind and solar electrical generating capacity is climbing quickly. A number of nations are developing new market signals and regulatory programs to reduce consumption of coal and oil, and to encourage cleaner energy alternatives. World leaders are set next month to converge on Paris to negotiate the first international agreement to limit carbon emissions.

In the United States, in an especially telling example of the global shift on fossil fuels, President Obama this week rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and ExxonMobil is being investigated for securities fraud. The company is charged with hiding its own scientific studies about the carbon emissions threat, and spending millions of dollars to protect its fossil fuel holdings by supporting lawmakers and interest groups that marketed the false idea that climate change is a scientific hoax.

Shenzhen's public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shenzhen’s public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Tilting To Cleaner Production Practices
I spent time this month in China’s Pearl River Delta as part of the Global Choke Point project I developed with Circle of Blue in 2010. The Choke Point project builds on seven years of multimedia reporting and convening that examines the water-energy-food confrontations in China, Australia, the United States, India, Mongolia, and the Arabian Gulf.

On the global resume of a world awakening to an era of ecological and economic reason, China’s new reckoning with the dangerous consequences of carbon stands out. Like a lover escaping the burden of a relationship that has suddenly grown difficult, China is steadily realigning its passion for coal, the largest source of carbon emissions. With an estimated 8.5 billion to 10 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, China produces more of the world’s carbon air pollution than any other nation. Continue reading “China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon”