The Department of Water Affairs will tell Cabinet in mid-December how it plans to resolve the acid mine drainage threat and how much this will cost, the deputy head of government communications said on Thursday.
“There are certain commitments, timelines and deadlines that the department of water and environmental affairs has committed to,” Vusi Mona told reporters after Cabinet’s regular fortnightly meeting on Wednesday.
“I am aware that within six weeks they hope to come back to Cabinet and say ‘this is what has been found out’ and ‘these are the allocations of the budget, the financial implications of the investigation’ … they have committed to a period of six weeks.”
It was announced last week that an inter-ministerial committee on acid mine drainage has completed a report on the toxic swill in disused mines in Johannesburg and other northern parts of the country.
However, the departments of mineral resources and water said the document would not yet be made public.
Mona said Cabinet this week extended the mandate of the inter-ministerial committee to probe complaints from farmers and retailers that widespread water pollution problems were affecting food production.
“[Cabinet] considered this serious enough to say that the inter-ministerial committee … should actually extend its mandate and look into this issue as well.
“Cabinet does not make light of this issue because it does affect the health of South Africans, it does affect the economy of this country.”
Farmers warned last week that South Africa’s deteriorating water quality could put European export markets at risk, while retailers Spar and Pick n Pay expressed concern that food could be contaminated with waterborne pathogens seeping into irrigation supplies from sewage plants.
A 2009 Green Drop report found just more than half of South Africa’s 900 water treatment plants attained a score of less than 50%.
According to Stellenbosch University epidemiologist Dr Jo Barnes, 80% of existing sewage treatment works in South Africa were overloaded, and about 40% of those in towns were on the brink of collapse.
The quality of the country’s river water had fallen by 20% in the past five years, she said earlier this month.
Mona said the inter-ministerial task team did not yet have a deadline to deliver a report on the pollution problem.
It was appointed in early September to deal with acid mine drainage, which has been described as the single biggest threat to the environment in the country and affects Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and Free State.
It results from the oxidation of sulphide minerals which are exposed in a mine or are present in dust in underground shafts and tunnels. As a result of its acidity, the water dissolves rock material and may contain a range of toxic metals.
Concern has been expressed over the rising level of acid mine water under Johannesburg, with experts saying the swill could enter the last safety buffer, an area stretching 150m below surface, by early 2012.