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South Africa Environmental Export Market Plan
Chapter 1

Environmental Market Overview

Water Pollution

The scarcity of water is due to the fact that South Africa is semiarid and prone to drought. Approximately 65 percent of the country receives less than 500 millimeters of rainfall per year--generally accepted as the minimum for successful dryland farming. In 1991, 70 to 75 percent of the total water consumption in South Africa was used to irrigate only 0.7 percent of the country's arable land.

In 1994, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) introduced a new policy to limit the water used for irrigation and to increase the amount of treated water available to some of the estimated 12 million people in South Africa without access to clean drinking water. While the mining and chemical industries generate the most toxic pollutants, the majority of water pollutants come from urban wastewater, particularly from the informal settlements that lack sewage and water purification facilities.

In June 1998, the National Assembly passed the revolu-tionary National Water Bill that will affect the ownership, management, distribution, and cost of water in South Africa. The full impacts of this legislation are just beginning to be analyzed, but are sure to have a major effect on almost every sector of the South African economy, including agriculture, mining, energy, and industrial production.

Water pollution contributes to serious health problems, such as typhoid, cholera, and gastroenteritis. There is an alarming increase in highly polluted, storm water runoff from the informal settlements. Gastroenteritis is one of the main causes of death among children in South Africa. Between 1980 and 1990, approximately half a million South Africans contracted cholera. Marine pollution results from land-based sources, including pipelines and storm water runoff (194,600 tons of pollutants per year). Marine-based sources of pollution include shipping discharges (accidental, deliberate, and operational) and offshore drilling oil operations. While newer pipelines discharge into deepwater offshore areas, older pipelines still discharge into the surf zone and some into bays or harbors where the water exchange is low.

Industrial and Toxic Waste

South Africa produces approximately 350,000 tons of toxic waste annually. Industrial hazardous waste comes mainly from the mining sector. The Gauteng Province alone, where mining is highly concentrated, produces 70 percent of all hazardous waste in the country.

Current practices for handling hazardous waste are inadequate. Approximately 95 percent of all South Africa's hazardous waste is disposed in landfills. The landfills are “sealed” with clay or plastic, or encapsulated in concrete. High-temperature incineration, which some consider good for the disposal of many industrial wastes, is not yet widely available in South Africa. Radioactive waste is disposed of at a sophisticated containment facility in the Northern Cape Province. In September 1994, the DWAF stated that more than half of the country's approximately 1,300 hazardous waste sites did not meet minimum standards.


Although South Africa has only 4 percent of the land area and 7 percent of the population of the entire African continent, it consumes about 53 percent of the energy used in Africa. Most of the energy is used for energy-intensive industries. Domestic use of energy is mostly for the more affluent households. While South Africa can satisfy most of its own industrial energy needs and is a major exporter of energy in the form of coal and electricity, just under half of the South African population, especially in rural areas, do not have access to electricity. It is estimated, for example, that only 12 percent of black households have electricity. Since 1994, the government has funded an electrification project, the Eskom’s Accelerated Electrification Programme that targeted about 5 million rural and urban households, for energy hookups over a five-year period. Electrification of the rural and township areas will alleviate the current dependence on the use of coal for heat and cooking. Household coal burning is a major source of air pollution in South Africa.

Air Pollution

Both urban and rural areas suffer from outdoor pollution. Eighty-three percent of electricity is generated by coal combustion in South Africa. This coal, on average, contains about 1.2 percent sulfur and 40 percent ash. In addition to fly ash and sulfur dioxide from power plants, refineries, sulfur ore smelting, industry, and iron/steel plants pollute the air.

There is also low-level atmospheric pollution from smaller sources, such as individual coal stoves in residential and rural areas without access to electricity and coal-fired industrial boilers. It is estimated that together these sources emit an additional 50,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere annually. For example, coal stoves in Soweto, a black township south of Johannesburg, produce more than 80 percent of the local air pollution. The air pollution problem is probably severe in the sparsely populated Eastern Transvaal Province, where acid rain and airborne sulfur are generated by the burning of coal. A problem unique to South Africa is dust blowing from sand and mine waste dumps; dust blown from sand dumps create problems for residential areas. Mine coal dumps create pollution and safety problems when the waste coal ignites spontaneously.

Industry's Impact on the Environment

The mining industry's environmental impacts include dust; sulfur dioxide and methane emissions; toxic waste discharges, including cyanide, lead, and arsenic; mine tilings disposal; and saline water discharge. The chemical industry has produced contaminated wastes, including mercury, cyanide, and liquid chlorinated organic waste. In addition, agricultural practices have led to soil erosion, desertification, and salination. Large-scale forestry projects have altered the downstream water flow, causing shortages to communities and ecosystems below the forests.

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