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In South Africa, the Pretoria High Court has issued an interdict prevent coal mining company Uthaka Energy from starting mining and related activities in a Strategic Water Source area.

The High Court’s order prevents and restrains Uthaka Energy from conducting any mining activity or mining-related operations and activities including preparatory, ancillary or incidental to mining at the Proposed Yzermyn coal mine near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga. Except for survey pegging of the surface infrastructure and wetlands demarcation pegging of the approved pan, that is.

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The interdict was issued to allow the legal challenges of the proposed mine’s permits to be decided first, before harm is done to strategic and important water sources. The proposed coal mine would fall with a Strategic Water Source Area, one of only 22 areas where more than 50% of South Africa’s freshwater originates.

Protecting strategic water source areas is crucial for South Africa’s water security and for the ability to provide water for people and the country’s economic activity.

Until January 2021, the proposed mining areas also fell within the Mabola Protected Environment, a protected area declared under the Protected Areas Act in 2014. That protected status meant commercial mining could only take place with joint permission from the Environment Minister and the Minerals Minister.

In January 2021, Mpumalanga MEC Vusi Shongwe revoked the protected area status to allow the proposed coal mine to proceed with that permission.

Interdict ties into litigation around deadly air

Since 2015, a coalition of civil society organisations has been working to undo the approvals given for the mine. The coalition brought an interdict application before the High Court on 5 March 2021, after the mining company gave notice of its intention to start mining activity on 24 March 2021. The Coalition asked the High Court to order Uthaka Energy to not start mining until other pending legal proceedings have been determined.

There are five other court challenges of permits granted for the proposed mine pending before the High Court. The Coalition will shortly launch a sixth court challenge asking the High Court to review and set aside MEC Shongwe’s deproclamation decision.

Robby Mokgalaka, coal community campaigner with environmental justice group groundWork, commented: “Decades of mining and burning of coal has caused toxic air pollution and water pollution on the Mpumalanga Highveld, which has meant ill health and premature death for thousands of people living here.”

groundWork is one of the applicants in the Deadly Air case about the health impacts of the poor air quality on the Highveld. This case will go to court in May 2021.

Elton Thobejane of the Mining & Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa, stated: “Coal Mining has also meant loss of land and livelihoods for so many communities living on the Highveld, with particular hardship born by women.”

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Both the recognition of the area as a Strategic Water Source Area and its declaration as a protected area were the result of more than a decade of government supported and funded research and planning, and were spearheaded by government departments such as the Department of Water and Sanitation and the Department of Environmental Affairs, and a number of government agencies like the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Water Research Commission.

Bobby Peek, groundWork director, added: “Allowing a new coal mine to proceed in this pace, at this stage of the climate crises, simply because one mining company made a bad investment decision, will not only go against South Africa’s global commitments, but further exposes the people of this country who are already disproportionately vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Coal is South Africa’s past, not its future.”

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The Coalition defending the Mabola Protected Environment comprises the Mining and Environmental Justice Communities Network of South AfricagroundWorkEarthlife Africa JohannesburgBirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) and the Bench Marks Foundation. The Coalition is represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights.