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South Africa’s Mine Water Management Needs Long-Term Solutions

Experts Urge Strategic Approaches to Address Challenges

by Adenike Adeodun

South Africa has made considerable strides in addressing mine water challenges. However, several areas still need improvement to ensure the country continues on a positive trajectory. Improving the future landscape of the local mining industry is essential.

Experts suggest that correct processes, aligning implementation with research, and adapting the regulatory environment are crucial. These interventions will yield considerable benefits and present opportunities, especially if pursued collaboratively.

During Creamer Media’s webinar on mine water held in May, speakers outlined these critical areas. Marius Keet, director of MK Water and Mine Water Consultancy, facilitated the discussion. He highlighted that 60% of the country’s rivers are overexploited. He also warned that South Africa is heading towards a 17% water deficit by 2030 and that several areas struggle with water quality issues.

“If water quality continues to deteriorate, availability will decline, and treatment costs will rise,” Keet stated. University of Cape Town Associate Professor Jennifer Broadhurst emphasized water’s crucial role in mining. It is used extensively for cooling, extraction, materials transportation, dust suppression, and waste processing. However, mining constitutes only 3% to 6% of the country’s total water demand.

Despite not being the biggest water user, mining can significantly affect local water supplies and quality through groundwater pollution from seepage. SRK Consulting principal hydrologist Peter Shepherd pointed out that water issues come down to “too much, too little, or too dirty.” He noted that the mining industry has made significant advancements in the past two decades.

“In South Africa, there’s been a definite shift in how we deal with water. Mining may only be there for a hundred years, but the tailings dams will last thousands of years,” Shepherd explained. Broadhurst added that most major mining houses are committed to minimizing their water consumption through better practices. This includes recycling and using alternative water sources, like treated sewage effluent in processing plants.

Harmony Gold Mining Company’s senior sustainable development manager, Jozua Ellis, shared that the company has made significant progress in the last 15 years. Harmony Gold has integrated water management into its strategic plans, recognizing its importance. The company has invested heavily in extending the life of its operations, necessitating a long-term view of water management.

Kate Stubbs, Interwaste group business development and marketing director, emphasized that mine water is a complex issue. “There’s no silver bullet to manage it. Solutions must be bespoke and not one-size-fits-all,” she said. Ellis reiterated this, noting the uniqueness of each catchment and mine. He stressed the need for future-proof water treatment facilities.

During the webinar, speakers argued that South Africa is well-equipped in terms of research and development (R&D) related to mine water technologies. The country’s academic institutions excel in this area. “I have full confidence in our technical capacity and resources. We’ve kept up with developments and are applying realistic technologies,” Keet added.

Broadhurst noted that technology is not the issue. The challenge lies in finding solutions that are fit for purpose while considering environmental, economic, social, and political factors. Some available technology solutions are very effective, while others are unproven. Keet underscored the importance of thorough due diligence and partnerships with credible service providers.

Stubbs pointed out that private businesses must consider commercial realities. Compliance with standards is crucial, but even credible solutions can be unsustainable if inconsistent. Participants noted a disconnect between technology research and the actual implementation of solutions. Broadhurst emphasized the need to demonstrate proof-of-concept on a larger scale.

An enabling environment is essential for treating mine-impacted water. Ellis lamented the “cumbersome” process for mining companies to acquire authorizations. He noted that the regulatory framework is not agile enough. Despite policies for cleaner production and the circular economy, regulations often hinder innovative solutions.

Speakers suggested that more can be done to make the regulatory environment more agile. This would allow for quicker decision-making and the conversion of mine water into a valuable resource. Ellis highlighted the potential for partnerships with entities like Rand Water to pursue solutions for the country’s water challenges. Using treated wastewater for activities such as agriculture could promote sustainability and a circular economy.

Stubbs acknowledged that treating water to potable standards can be costly but noted considerable opportunities. Shepherd added that a key challenge is managing the brine from treatment processes, which still requires sustainable disposal.

Long-term thinking is crucial for managing South Africa’s mine water challenges. By adopting strategic approaches and fostering collaboration, the country can address these challenges and harness its resources for sustainable development.


Source: Mining Weekly

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