The cost of coal in South Africa: dirty skies, sick children


EMALAHLENI, South Africa, November 4 (Reuters) – In 2019, scientists working for the South African government completed a study on the health impacts of pollution caused by the country’s sprawling coal industry.

Researchers from the Public Council for Scientific and Industrial Research had been assured by government authorities that their multi-year study would be published, according to three people familiar with the matter.

So far, it has not seen the light of day.

The study, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, showed that more than 5,000 South Africans die each year in the country’s coal belt because the government has not fully enforced its own quality standards for the air. He also revealed that nearly a quarter of households in the region, home to 3.6 million people, have children with persistent asthma. This is double the national rate.

The South African government has granted emissions limit waivers to its indebted state-owned electricity and fuel companies, Eskom and Sasol, since 2015, saving them money.

This kind of continued government support highlights a problem in many coal-dependent countries, from Australia to Indonesia, that is hampering the transition to cleaner energy. In producing countries, governments, businesses and local residents often view coal as an economic lifeline.

South Africa’s coal industry, the fifth largest in the world, employs 90,000 miners, generates 80% of the country’s electricity and supplies the raw material for about a quarter of the country’s liquid fuel for vehicles, all at a time of growing unemployment and frequent blackouts.

The costs of a gigantic coal industry are also high, and not just for the climate. The South African coal belt is covered with smog and coal ash; the stench of sulfur invades. The region east of Johannesburg is among the most polluted in the world, according to experts, rivaling Beijing and New Delhi.

In 2017, British air pollution expert Mike Holland calculated that the health impacts of Eskom’s emissions alone cost South Africa $ 2.37 billion each year.

Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, whose ministry commissioned the 2019 Coal Health Study, declined to say why it remains unpublished. She said the government still intends to release it at some point.

“We understand that there are serious health issues facing communities,” she said, adding that the government considers improving air quality “absolutely imperative”.

But the Creecy agency – the Department of Fisheries, Forests and the Environment – has publicly defended its lax enforcement of pollution regulations as an economic necessity in legal battles with activists. In a recent filing, he said his main challenge was to tackle pollution without hurting “the poor, who are desperate for employment opportunities.”


As the United Nations climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow kicks off this month, coal is in the sights of a global push to replace it with cleaner fuels. Read more

South Africa is the 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, according to the non-profit organization Global Carbon Atlas. This water-stressed country is also one of the big losers from climate change. Temperatures in southern Africa are rising twice as fast as the global average, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, pushing the deserts of the region’s northwest to the south.

In an effort to secure foreign investment, Eskom is proposing a $ 10 billion plan to shut down most of its coal-fired power plants by 2050 and embrace renewables like wind and solar, with funding from rich countries . The United States, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union gave the effort a boost on Tuesday, offering $ 8.5 billion to help South Africa move out of coal .

Eskom’s green push, however, has brought the company into conflict with Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who has called the abandonment of coal “economic suicide”. Read more

Mantashe represents a powerful constituency within the ruling ANC which includes labor unions whose support depends on the party to win the election. These unions, like Mantashe, are concerned about job losses.

“We shouldn’t collapse our economy because they are hungry for green finance,” Matashe said at a mining conference in South Africa in October. He previously said that shutting down the country’s coal plants would allow South Africans to “breathe fresh air in the dark”.

Mantashe declined to comment for this story.

Darkness is already a familiar experience in the Coal Belt. Power cuts are a daily reality for the slums strung between mine shafts and cooling towers in towns like Emalahleni – “The Coal Square” in the Zulu language.

If people stay, it is for the good fortune of having a job.


Mbali Matabule and his partner were high school students when they exchanged phone numbers on a dirt road in Vosman, a township outside Emalahleni. After graduation, her partner found work at Sasol’s Secunda plant, which turns coal into liquid fuel for cars. The following year, Matabule gave birth to their first child, Princess.

Her salary enabled them to feed and clothe their daughter and to buy the accessories of bourgeois life: a television, a microwave, a refrigerator and an electric stove to install in their cabin in the compound of her parents.

Then, in May 2018, as she neared her fourth birthday, Princess started having trouble breathing. They rushed her to the hospital, where a doctor put a mask on Princess’s face attached to a nebulizer.

“They said she had asthma,” said Matabule. “I thought: why? She was not born with asthma. “

Towards the end of this year, they had a second child, Asemahle, who quickly developed breathing problems.

“Her chest was rough,” said Matabule.

Hospital visits became routine and medical costs began to rise. Without health insurance, the couple spent 2,500 rand ($ 184.03) per month on medical bills for their children, almost half of Mbali’s partner’s salary.


The smog released from burning coal contains chemicals like oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, mercury and lead, and radioactive elements like uranium and thorium.

“We know that coal air pollution causes lung problems, heart disease. It harms the cognitive development of children,” said Mohammed Tayob, a doctor in Middleberg, one of the worst affected towns in the country. coal belt.

The 2019 CSIR study obtained by Reuters concluded that 5,125 lives could be saved each year in the coal belt by applying national air quality standards on soot, also known as particulate matter.

Emalahleni’s air, he said, contains about 20% more particles than the national limit of 40 micrograms per cubic meter, and more than three times more than recommended by the World Health Organization.

The region’s sulfur dioxide levels, meanwhile, are out of the ordinary. The nonprofit Energy and Clean Air Research Center this month found that Eskom alone emits more SO2 than the entire power sector in the United States and China combined.

Cleaning up the air would require a crackdown on polluting industries.

Eskom’s environmental official Deidre Herbst told Reuters that government waivers allowing his company to exceed pollution limits were an economic necessity: it would cost R300 billion ($ 20 billion) and take 10 to 15 years to fully meet national SO2 standards, resulting in extended outages in the meantime.

“It is impossible for us to become immediately compliant,” she said, and South Africa cannot just shut down all of its coal-fired power plants.

Sasol spokesman Matebelo Motloung said the company’s shows were licensed under its operating licenses and the company hoped to adopt cleaner technologies in the future.


Matabule hadn’t imagined that the haze in her neighborhood was causing her children’s illness until she attended a local meeting on air pollution and heard stories from neighbors.

“I got so angry because no one was doing anything and people were sick and dying,” Matabule said.

But, like her husband who relies on coal for a salary, many in her community are wary of a transition to cleaner energy.

Vosman resident Valentia Msiza, 33, said her family has been doing well since her husband got his job in the coal mines. They fear that a transition will leave them behind.

They too have a child with breathing problems – and they cannot afford his care without the husband’s salary and health insurance. The family is looking for a specialist doctor to treat their toddler’s lung disease.

“It’s our last hope now,” said Valentina.

Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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