News / Africa

Toxic Waters Threaten Johannesburg

All form of life of life has disappeared in this contaminated lake near Randfontein, about 45 kilometers outside Johannesburg, South Africa, January 2012.
All form of life of life has disappeared in this contaminated lake near Randfontein, about 45 kilometers outside Johannesburg, South Africa, January 2012.

The discovery of gold was the reason for the birth and the rise of Johannesburg, long called the "City of Gold." But a century later, those same mines, where toxic water has built up in abandoned shafts and may leak into South Africa's water supply, now pose a serious threat.

"This used to be a very popular recreational lake," Mariette Liefferink said as she answered questions from a group of locals and researchers. "As a result of acidic mine waters that decanted in 2002, the Robinson Lake today is a declared radioactive dam as you can see.  Its uranium level that was measured in 2002 was 40000 times natural uranium levels in fresh water.”

Activist Mariette Liefferink describes the environmental hazards posed by abandoned gold mines to a group of locals and researchers in Randfontein, Johannesburg.
Activist Mariette Liefferink describes the environmental hazards posed by abandoned gold mines to a group of locals and researchers in Randfontein, Johannesburg.

Liefferink is the chief executive of the Federation for Sustainable Environment.  For years, she has been taking people around to show them contaminated mine sites, and raise the alarm bell.

"We’re going to measure, who wants the PH strip?  This is a PH of 2, can you see?  This is similar to lemon juice," she said. "So this is more likely to mean that nothing can live in this water."

We are in Randfontein, 45 kilometers from Johannesburg.  Here, toxic waters started to leach into the ground 10 years ago.  The water is orange, tainted with radioactive minerals and has a strong acidic odor.

This is the result of massive excavating in the search for gold until the 1970s when mining activities stopped here and shafts were abandoned.  Also abandoned were the pumps that kept the tunnels dry. So water massed, oxidizing the minerals on the walls and creating sulfuric acid that is now drained by rainwater into the soil and underwater lakes.

Nico Jacobs' farm lies in the middle of this huge agricultural area. Around his house, cultivated fields and cattle as far as the eyes can see.  His family knows the water they use is not normal.

"My little baby, she's 8 years old, she had a bath last night, and this is what the water looks like," said Jacobs. "If we start draining the water, you will see the blue marks scattered around the sides of the bath."


Nico Jacobs, a farmer in Randfontein, shows the blueish water that is coming out of his bath tub faucet, January 2012. (VOA - Emilie Iob)

The toxic water is affecting his business, saying he used to have 200 cows but now there are only 46 left.  He blames the contamination.

"If things aren't gonna improve or getting resolved, I think we gonna end up with pieces of land that won't be productive, and the food chain is gonna be impacted."

The affected areas are not only in the surrounding countryside. Johannesburg itself sits on top of a gold mine and heaps of excavated soil are visual reminders of the city’s history.  Even a major amusement park in the central business district, Gold Reef City, features a ride that goes through a mine shaft.

Experts say the cost of cleaning up derelict mines would be enormous and could accelerate the decline of the key mining industry in South Africa, one of the top five gold producing countries on the world.

The problem is complicated, said Anthony Turton, a scientist who specializes in water resource management.

"If we continue to ignore it, South Africa is going to continue to have investor confidence in the economy eroded. That is not good for anyone. The second thing that is going to happen is you're going continuously get a human health issue coming to the fore, and that is going to feed into the investor confidence slowly.  The third thing that is going to happen, is that we're building up a level of salt in our rivers and therefore salt on our agriculture land and therefore we're going to start limiting our capacity as a nation to feed itself."

Despite this, Turton cautioned against overreaction.

"There is a lot of alarmism going on, about this acid mining drainage story.  Yes, acid mine drainage is a problem, a significant problem, but certainly not going to float the streets of Johannesburg."

The government has been aware a solution was going to be needed since the mid-1990s. The problem is there was little to no regulation of the mining industry under apartheid and most mining companies who were here then deny responsibility.

Toxic waters threaten those who live in South African townships very close to the former mines, like this one located near Randfontein. (VOA - Emilie Iob)

Last year, a group of experts proposed a series of measures to purify the water. But this sustainable solution has an estimated cost of four times the budget allocated to the ministry of water for the next three years.

The government and some mining companies, like AngloGold Ashanti, are working on plans to expanding efforts to pump the toxic water and how to cover costs.

You May Like

Hostage Crisis Could Divide Japan Over Plans to Boost Military

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the government is working closely with the Jordanian government to secure the release of remaining Japanese hostage Kenji Goto More

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Country's youngest ever PM Alexis Tsipras, 40, sworn in Monday and says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts More

Multimedia National Geographic Photo Camps Empower Youth

Annual mentoring program's mission is to give young people a voice to tell their own stories through photography More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid