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MBABANE, Dec 26 2011 (IPS) - A multi-million dollar iron-ore reprocessing plant in the northern part of Swaziland, owned by Indian mining company Salgaocar, is threatening the water security of local communities and even the country’s capital city, Mbabane.
Residents here are worried that effluent from the mining factory, which is scheduled to start operating in January 2012 within a protected area inside the Malolotja Game Reserve, will contaminate the water quality of the nearby Hawane Dam.
The Swaziland Water Services Corporation (SWSC) draws water from Hawane Dam to supply Mbabane and the tourism hub of Ezulwini.
Ngwenya Iron Ore Mine, where the plant is being established, is the oldest mine in the world according to the Swaziland National Trust Commission and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Mining has been banned in the area since 1972 and the spot was declared a world heritage site and tourism attraction.
However, Minister of Commerce and Trade Jabulile Mashwama told parliament in 2005 that the government could not depend on the site economically because very little revenue was generated from tourism.
But residents from the nearby New Skom have approached Salgaocar management to request the company supply the community with clean potable water. Nothing has been forthcoming, so far.
“We don’t have access to clean water, and the little that we have from the stream is likely to be contaminated with iron ore when the factory, which will be established close to the stream, starts,” said Princess Hlatshwayo, a local resident.
The community has never had potable water because, Hlatshwayo said, the SWSC said it was difficult to install pipes here because of the difficult terrain and lack of established roads.
“So for years we’ve been collecting water for drinking and cooking from the stream, which we treat by boiling it,” she said.
When IPS visited the mining site, trucks loaded with iron ore were transporting the substance to Mozambique for reprocessing until the factory here opens in January.
Rex Brown, a local environmentalist and resident of Mbabane, is concerned about the direct threat to Hawane Dam and Mbuluzi River from the runoff of the reprocessing factory site and ore stockpiles.
He points to a number of discrepancies in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prepared by Sustainable Technologies, a consulting company that wrote the report. He said the EIA lacked clearly defined measurable mitigation targets, and will put thousands of people’s water supplies at risk if not reviewed.
“The EIA gives a shallow description of the waste water treatment process and what will become of the disposal facilities post factory,” said Brown. “The possible chemical composition of the waste water is not described despite the use of a range of chemicals and flocculants and additives to separate the haematite from the soil mass.”
He said the EIA presents limited factual or operational information on the type, size and capacity of proposed water treatment facilities.
However, SWSC public affairs manager Jameson Mkhonta said as far as the organisation was concerned there will be no threat to the water quality at Hawane Dam.
“All rivers feeding to Hawane Dam start from way below the other side of the mining activity, which means the dam is safe,” said Mkhonta.
He said the outflow from the mine would go to Motshane River, which does not feed into Hawane Dam. He also said the dam could only be contaminated if there is seepage from the mountain.
The Swaziland Environment Authority (SEA), which initially raised objections during the EIA process, said that their concerns have been addressed.
“The mitigation measures provided in the report on water pollution are sufficient to address any possible water contamination by the processing activities,” said SEA acting chief executive director Steven Zuke.
“Given the potential catastrophic consequences of such possible contamination, this issue is being treated as a high priority by the SEA and all parties involved,” said Zuke.
The SEA had been concerned about the use of chemicals but Zuke said that Salgaocar assured all parties that only lime would be used for iron ore screening.
“SEA is not aware of any other chemicals that will be used,” said Zuke.
However, general manager at Ngwenya Glass, Gary Hayter, said that the EIA was carried out over a short period during the dry season without any consideration or mitigation factors to cope with large fluctuations in the levels of the streams and rivers during summer thunderstorms.
Ngwenya Glass is a tourist attraction site operating close to the mine and Hayter was one of the people asked to make comments during the EIA scoping meeting.
“The quantity of water drawn from the existing water reserves will impact on the communities surrounding the site, as the project will be drawing water from the already limited drinking water for the communities as well as polluting these water reserves,” he said.
In response, Salgaocar acknowledged that the EIA could not be conducted over an entire year because of limited time.
“However, through monitoring, more data will be collected covering more parameters, which will help inform the project in a progressive manner,” reads a response from Salgaocar.
“Regular compliance reports, whose frequency will be determined by the Swaziland Environment Authority, will be complied through the duration of the project.”
Brown disagrees, arguing that the EIA for the most part ignores the physical reality of the reprocessing plant being located within a nationally protected area.
“The EIA … appears to completely ignore the national and international significance of having an iron ore reprocessing factory located within a nationally protected area.
“This precedent makes this project highly significant to the future management and status of protected areas nationally,” Brown said.
He said that although less than four percent of the country’s critical ecosystems have been formally protected, “this relatively small area is regionally and globally significant in terms of its biological diversity.”
The Swaziland Environment Justice Agenda, a non-governmental organisation running a Participatory Environment Education Course in partnership with Rhodes University, is also worried about the aquatic life in the pit of the mine.
“The EIA exercise was too fast for us to even make any meaningful contribution,” said Torch Dlamini, the coordinator of the course, which is held at the Malolotja Nature Reserve.
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