MINE WATER MANAGEMENT – A WICKED PROBLEM INDEED!

Written by : Traci Reddy, Principal at Pegasys Strategy and Development

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South Africa has a long history of mining, mainly for coal, gold and diamonds. Unfortunately, this mining has resulted in many of our water resources, both surface and ground water, being severely polluted not least as a result of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD).

Everyone has an opinion about who is to blame for the mine water challenges facing South Africa. The regulators point fingers at the mines, the mines point fingers at the regulators and civil society point fingers at both the regulator and the mines. But playing the blame game doesn’t help those experiencing the negative impacts from mining activities, particularly those communities that rely on the very water resources that are being polluted.

While it may be easy to blame the mining industry, we need to recognise the substantial contribution that mining has made to the development of the South Africa economy, and the on-going contribution that mined materials make to our everyday lives: employment, electricity, jewellery, telecommunications, roads and rail, and yes… toothpaste!

The mine water challenge is a wicked problem: A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, doesn’t have a right answer and is often accompanied by both social complexity and technical difficulty.

In terms of mine water pollution, we can’t turn back the clock and eradicate the mining industry or change their historical practices. Instead, when called on by the SWPN to assist in looking for a solution, our starting was to understand and unpack the complexities around the mine water challenges in South Africa, and to take an onion-layer approach.

The first layer looked the different stages of mining and their impacts on water so that we could distinguish between:

  • post-operational mining areas: in which the majority of mines are non-operational and mining has ceased;
  • operational mining areas: in which there is a mix of operational and non-operational mining, but with a limited lifespan; and
  • developing mining areas: in which new mines are being opened and most mines are operational.

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Each of these phases has different impacts on water resources by threatening, exacerbating or contributing to the AMD challenge. New mines threaten to create further AMD and the critical problem in this stage relates to the opening and licensing process for mines and the potential for preventing further AMD. Operational mines create AMD through dewatering and run-off from facilities, with problems relating primarily to operating practices and non-compliance with environmental and water legislation. Non-operating mines pose a particular challenge, leaving an AMD legacy through decant and runoff resulting from inadequate rehabilitation in the mine closure process, and inadequate environmental protection requirements in years gone by.

The second layer mapped out issues at the facility-level (at the mine) as well as at the landscape-level (in the catchment). At both levels there are challenges relating to unclear institutional responsibilities, ill-aligned regulations and policies, poor monitoring and enforcement, inadequate financing and lack of a regional mine-water strategy.

The third layer revealed at issues around the allocation of liability for the water pollution. There are still on-going discussions, which have been ongoing for many years now, around where the responsibility falls for those mines that are non-operational, and particularly for those mines that are now abandoned and ownerless. With a century of mining, mine ownership changing over time, and ownership of mining companies changing, this is not an easy question to answer.

The fourth layer highlighted concerns over the contraction of the mining industry, particularly the coal mining industry. Future decades will see an increase in non-operational mines, which may further increase the pollution load in the water resources, unless effective rehabilitation and closure procedures are put in place.

The fifth layer revealed that the problems being faced in the gold mining areas are quite distinct from those in the coalfields. The gold industry for instance is in its sunset phase, implying that many of the gold mines will be non-operational in a few years, if they are not “closed” already. However, there are opportunities to viably rework some of the mine dumps (already on-going) and older shafts (if they are dewatered).

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Whilst there are other layers to the mine-water challenge, these 5 layers together demonstrate the complexity of the situation. Numerous efforts have been made over the decades, either through advancement of treatment technologies, improvements in regulation and policy as well as formations of partnerships in trying to tackle and advance mine water management. So it begs the question: Why are we still stuck with the legacy of AMD? What is the missing link? What should be done to change our approach? In one word – COLLABORATION!

Part of the persistence of the mine-water challenge can be attributed to role players trying to tackle the problem in isolation, or in small groups. However, South Africa has seen the benefits of joint action through partnerships such as COALTECH2020, Strategic Water Partners Network, Global water Partnership, Emalahleni Water Reclamation Program (part of the Joint Action Initiative) and the Alliance for Water Stewardship. While these partnerships have yielded some change, it has been too little to generate the significant impact that is so desperately required. Something more is needed – once again, the missing link comes to mind – COLLABORATION!

In light of the complexity of the AMD challenge, and the significant social, environmental and economic impacts arising from pollution of South Africa’s scarce water resources, the need for ALL parties to come to the table is stronger now than ever before. ALL of the role players (regulators, civil society and the mines) will have to get past the finger-pointing in order to find a solution together. Recently, there has been a recognition from civil society, mining companies and the regulators that collaboration is the key to develop co-owned water management solutions – this recognition is the catalyst required for the joint action to combat the wicked problem! Currently, the SWPN is looking to get the key role players around the table to discuss collaborative solutions for coordinated regional planning in the Witbank Coalfields to combat the mine water issues being experienced there. The response model from these discussions, if implemented successfully, could be replicated in other parts of the country in order to circumvent similar issues in the future…

#AMD #minewatermanagement #WQM #jointaction #wickedproblem

Twitter: @TraciReddy

Date: September 2015

Written by Admin on 11 September 2015

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