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South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

Environmental Trends

South Africa has a wealth of natural resources, but also some severe environmental problems. The mainstay of the economy, the mining industry, has introduced environmental concerns, and mineowners have taken some steps in recent years to minimize the damage from this enterprise (see Environmental Protection and Tourism, ch. 3). Agriculture suffers from both land and water shortages, and commercial farming practices have taken a toll on the land. Energy production, too, has often contributed to environmental neglect.

Because of the generally steep grade of the Great Escarpment as it descends from the interior to the coastal lowlands, many of South Africa's rivers have an unusually high rate of runoff and contribute to serious soil erosion. In addition, water consumption needs and irrigation for agriculture have required building numerous dams. As of the mid-1990s, the country has 519 dams with a total capacity of 50 billion cubic meters. Water management engineers estimate that the Vaal River, which provides most of the water for the industrial hub around the Witwatersrand, has reached its maximum capacity for water utilization.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the largest hydroelectric project ever undertaken in Africa, is a thirty-year joint endeavor between South Africa and Lesotho that is due for completion in the year 2020. Through a series of dams on the headwaters of the Orange River, it will alleviate water shortages in South Africa and is expected to provide enough electrical power to enable Lesotho to become virtually self-sufficient in energy.

Much of the land in South Africa has been seriously overgrazed and overcultivated. During the apartheid era, black African farmers were denied many government benefits, such as fertilizers, which were available to white farmers. Settlement patterns, too, have contributed to land degradation, particularly in overcrowded black homelands, and the inadequate and poorly administered homelands' budgets have allowed few improvements in land use.

The environmental impacts of the mining industry have been devastating to some areas of the Witwatersrand, the country's most densely populated region. Some of the gold deposits located here have been mined for more than a century. According to South African geographer Malcolm Lupton and South African urban planning expert Tony Wolfson, mine shafts--the deepest is 3,793 meters--have made hillsides and ridges less stable. Pumping water from subterranean aquifers has caused the natural water table to subside, and the resulting cavities within the dolomite rock formations that overlie many gold deposits sometimes collapse, causing sinkholes. Moreover, these impacts of the mining industry could worsen over time.

Industrial wastes and pollutants are another mining-related environmental hazard. Solid wastes produced by the separation of gold from ore are placed in dumps, and liquid wastes are collected in pits, called slimes dams. Both of these contain small amounts of radioactive uranium. Radon gas emitted by the uranium poses a health threat when inhaled and can contribute to lung cancer and other ailments. Furthermore, the dust from mine dumps can contribute to respiratory diseases, such as silicosis.

Acids and chemicals used to reduce the ore to gold also leave dangerous contaminants in the water table. Streams around Johannesburg townships, such as Soweto, have been found to contain uranium, sulfates, cyanide, and arsenic. Land near mining operations is sometimes rendered "sterile" or too contaminated for farming, and efforts to reclaim the land have often proved too costly for industry or government.

Air pollution is a serious problem in some areas. Most homes lack electricity in the mid-1990s, and coal is used for cooking and heating. Air-quality tests have revealed high levels of particulate pollution, as a result, especially during cold weather. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in the early 1990s that air-quality measurements in Soweto and surrounding townships outside Johannesburg exceeded recommended levels of particulate pollution for at least three months of the year. Other studies suggest that air pollution contributes to child health problems, especially respiratory ailments, in densely populated areas.

Electricity for industrial and commercial use and for consumption in urban areas is often produced in coal-burning power stations. These electric power stations lack sulfur "scrubbers," and air-quality surveys have shown that they emit as much as 1.2 million tons of sulfur dioxide a year. A 1991 government-appointed panel of researchers reported that South Africa had contributed about 2 percent of the so-called greenhouse gases in the global environment.

Many government officials in 1995 had been among the strongest critics of earlier governments, and a frequent topic of criticism was environmental neglect. Preserving the environment, therefore, was important in the mid-1990s, but financial constraints were limiting the government's ability to enact or implement such measures. Economic development and improved living standards among the poor appeared likely to outweigh long-range environmental concerns for at least the remainder of the 1990s.


Data as of May 1996

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South Africa Table of Contents