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Mine water atlas soon to come on stream

‘No country in the world has done this before – Water Research Commission.

The South African Mine Water Atlas, which will provide a comprehensive reference on the vulnerability of water resources to mining activity in South Africa, is in the final stages of development. The Atlas will show the critical interplay between mining and water resources and will be the most extensive set of documents of its kind.

“We’re very excited about this project. It’s a world first. No country in the world has done this before,” said Research Manager for the Water Research Commission, Jo Burgess.

Phase 1 of the keenly awaited Mine Water Atlas, which is being led by global environmental and engineering consultancy Golder Associates, is expected to be unveiled within the next six months. The printed publication will be followed up with an interactive online atlas.

Watch the video interview with Burgess here:

The multi-layered set of maps will span all mineral provinces in South Africa and particularly drill down into the areas where mining frequently takes place. The maps will chart and map water resources in the various provinces. This in turn will be overlaid with maps of mining and mineral-refining activities in order to understand the locations at which surface and groundwater and mining collide.

Mining has been an integral part of the South African economy for over a century. The sector, which employs about 500 000 workers, is a large user of water. It has often come under the spotlight for water pollution problems associated with mining. Acid, neutral, and saline mine drainage can have a devastating effect on surface and ground water resources. Acidic water leaching out of mine dumps can flow into rivers or streams, stop plants from growing and kill the food chain from the bottom up.

Brendan Hart of Golder Associates said the Atlas is intended to help mining companies, investors, government departments and students get a better understanding of the impact of mining on water resources.

Watch a one-on-one interview with Hart:

While it is an extremely useful guide, the Atlas does not replace Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) or tell you where you can or can’t mine. “It rather sets the decision context around the likely impacts of mining activity in a given mineral region,” said Hart.

“For example, the Atlas would be able to advise that certain areas could be dangerous and highly vulnerable as it’s a pristine environment. It puts up red flags so that potential investors would think twice before digging there,” said Burgess.

Hart believes the Mine Water Atlas will help mining companies and investors get information about the areas in which they’re active. They’ll be able to use it to see what their liabilities may be and what the focus of mitigation measures may need to be to protect water resources in their area of operation, for example, water treatment plants to ensure water discharges from the mines are of good quality and won’t damage the environment or pose a risk to public health.

It will help government departments to visualise and highlight areas that are very risky, and also help define the key questions for impact assessment. The Atlas will serve as an educational reference for legislators as well as universities, while it is also geared towards raising awareness among the general public about the critical link between water and mining.

Burgess said the WRC has been very encouraged by the openness of mining and consulting companies, which have provided data that could be used for the common goal of environmental protection and have shared their EIA data sets with Golder and the WRC.

She said the set of maps would be presented in a picture form, and serve a purpose that can be likened to the way you would use a town map or road atlas to help your initial stages if you were buying a house in a new town – it will help you know where you’d like to investigate further, but it won’t tell you which house to buy. It will include a story narrative on how to interact with the maps, together with tables, statistics and other descriptions.”

A range of issues will be explored in various chapters, including a province-by-province look at water availability and water usage, as well as water use by the mining sector.

Another key data set that Hart expects will be widely used is a new groundwater vulnerability map for South Africa that looks at vulnerability to surface mining and underground mining.

Hart believes these maps could be applied to other industries as well. “It’s a relatively high resolution product which feeds into the Mine Water Atlas but can also stand on its own and be used in various industries in water management.”

Burgess says she hopes the Mine Water Atlas will also help regulators to prioritise the most critical of the between 4 500 and 6 000 ownerless and derelict mines scattered around the country, some of them decades old. “The best option for these mines is to have a scheme where the water is channeled to one point and then pumped and treated.”

Burgess said while disused mines remained a big problem, South Africa currently only has about 200 active mines and that mining executives were far more aware these days of the need for good environmental management.

Mining is concentrated in the coalfields, goldfields and bushveld complexes where minerals such as platinum, coal, diamonds and gold abound.

“We are hoping that the Mine Water Atlas will put this issue in the spotlight, facilitate discussion and raise awareness in South Africa, particularly as it is a water-constrained economy,” said Hart.

South Africa is one of the 30 most water scarce countries in the world.   

This article forms part of an education series sponsored by Golder Associates on the risks industry faces.  

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