Botswana is likely to be caught up in the South African green politics following its planed part in the controversial Coal 3 project. Coal 3 is to be built in the South African Waterberg coalfield that underlies a remote part Limpopo Province in northern South Africa, as well as part of Botswana.
Environmentalists are worried that the construction of Coal 3 will lock South Africa and Botswana into the unnecessary and harmful consumption and export of coal for decades to come. In addition to the climate implications, they fear for the region’s scarce water resources and agricultural land, which are already being polluted and torn up by mining companies on a massive scale. Coal 3, the proposed new plant, is a particularly bad idea, they say.
It “doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally,” says Saliem Fakir of WWF-South Africa. “It only makes sense when you look at it in terms of vested interests and the politics of the whole southern African region.” Coal 3 is likely to be built in the Waterberg coalfield that underlies a remote part Limpopo Province in northern South Africa, as well as part of neighboring Botswana. Although the Waterberg is one of southern Africa’s largest known coal deposits, it has remained underexploited because its complex geology and lack of water and rail lines has made it less attractive to private investors than “easier” coalfields farther south. The Coal 3 plant would change this by guaranteeing local markets for more Waterberg mines, says Fakir.
In addition, associated heavy-haul rail lines will allow access to lucrative export markets, not just for the Waterberg mines but for new mines in Botswana, too. Fakir points out that supporters of South Africa’s ruling party hold coal rights in the region, and that landlocked Botswana’s government has long sought a route to the sea for its abundant but almost completely unexploited coal resources.
The South African coal industry is adept at navigating the country’s increasingly murky political waters. According to media reports, President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, and members of the Gupta family ÔÇö some of the president’s wealthiest supporters ÔÇö are connected to two companies, Idwala Coal and Tegeta Resources. The Sunday Times newspaper reports that Idwala admitted to the Department of Environmental Affairs that the company had illegally diverted a public road and a river, destroyed part of a wetland, and illegally discharged pollutants as part of its mining operations. Tegeta has been mining for two years without environmental authorization or a water use permit, according to the Afrikaans-language newspaper, Beeld.
But there’s little official talk of prosecutions in these cases ÔÇö the government instead has emphasized its efforts to retroactively legalize the mines’ infractions. Other media reports say that the ruling ANC, operating through a front company called Chancellor House, effectively owns 25% of Hitachi Power Africa. State-owned Eskom granted Hitachi a lucrative contract to make the boilers of the two giant Medupi and Kusile plants. Many coal seams in this region are shallow, inviting the attention of stripminers who have ripped up hundreds of thousands of acres.
Other miners have dug shafts down to deeper seams. The result is a ravaged landscape. Some important rivers are now so polluted by acid mine drainage, which seeps out of abandoned mines, that they can no longer be used by farms or factories. Underground coal seam fires, some of which have been burning for decades, cause smoking sinkholes to appear. Coal 3 now faces several hurdles. Eskom’s own experts don’t like it, says Fakir, because the Waterberg region is water-scarce and supplying the water required to operate it will be extremely expensive. Eskom also lacks cheap capital to finance Coal 3’s construction, Fakir says. The U.S. and the United Kingdom also recently announced that they would no longer fund most new coal-fired power plants, either directly or via the World Bank, although China and various multinationals may still provide the cash.
Large coal mining companies, unsure of the domestic market and the effect of a carbon tax that might be introduced in 2015, are now focusing on the expansion of the world’s largest coal export terminal at Richards Bay on the Indian Ocean to increase exports to India and China. Key government powerbrokers support that plan. Greenpeace Africa’s climate and energy campaigner, Melita Steele, sees Coal 3 as a last-gasp attempt by the coal industry to entrench itself in the region’s future.
“In the coming months and years the renewable projects that are being built now will come on stream,” she says. “People will see that solar and wind power works and creates more jobs than coal. It will be very hard for the government to justify Coal 3 then, and they know it.”