In the early history of mining, less attention was given to the concept of sustainability, as it is understood today.
Then, the focus was largely on short-term gain, largely economic. Rarely was regard given to how the society and the environment (including water) would be impacted.
Decades later, the evidence of the adverse impacts is seen in the environment and its surrounding societies.
This requires careful attention on the past and the present in order to devise solutions to decisively mitigate future risks and to also achieve sustainability in the area of mine environments and mine water, as well as a move to regenerative development in degraded environments.
The Council for Geoscience (CGS) is implementing the Mine Environment Water Management Programme which focuses on the remediation of mine water resulting from decommissioned and abandoned mines.
This programme uses a proactive approach to water management in mining areas.
Sustainable water management requires various treatment options, including diverting water away from mining environments to prevent pollution; implementing passive treatment systems; and improvement in capacity to predict and mitigate pollution moving into the future.
Through research that enables the remediation of mine water through by harnessing natural processes to treat mine water close to the source, the CGS has piloted a passive treatment system which aims to minimise external chemical and energy inputs. The CGS is currently implementing the system on a larger scale.
Creating long-term sustainability
Mining in its nature is a temporary activity and is determined by the availability of mineral resources and the market’s demand for those minerals.
In the current mining era, more thought is now given to work towards sustainability by improving mining methods.
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In light of this, key aspects which include: the environmental impacts; and the status the economy of the surrounding communities post mining should be carefully assessed.
When mining operations cease, communities around mines are often left without meaningful livelihoods and have to deal with life-long adverse environmental impacts due to mining which was devoid of acceptable levels of environmental stewardship.
By promoting a new paradigm of concurrent economic development and diversification, mining can be conducted in parallel with other compatible, symbiotic land-uses, as well as land regeneration in brownfields projects.
As the lifespan of other land-uses, such as agriculture, forestry, and manufacturing as well as renewable energy generation are generally longer than the duration of mining projects, this integrated approach to development creates an incentive for mining operations to care for and regenerate the land they occupy.
This will allow sustainable economic activity to continue beyond the closure of the mining operations.
Research on the adaptation of mining to climate change has also contributed to advising the regulatory frameworks on how to encourage the industry to move towards sustainability through energy and water saving mining methods.
However, most of the hope for sustainability in mining lies in prudent planning for future operations. Recent scientific assessments have highlighted climate change, loss of biodiversity and other global environmental challenges.
The CGS, in partnership with Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), are investing in research that aims to optimise the contribution of mining to a diverse and sustainable development pathway and enable co-existence of mining and a safe, healthy and diverse environment.
The CGS has also investigated the potential environmental impacts of mining activities of exploration of the wealth of the ocean – boosting the blue economy.
Availability of this information allows for better planning, application of sound legislation to ensure sustainable and safe oceans.
The CGS is also in the process of developing a geo-environmental model from the Karoo Deep Drilling project, which will inform the regulatory framework in the event of shale gas exploration and exploitation to which considers the preservation of the environment.
Over time, the CGS’s skills base and infrastructure have diversified from that of a classical geological survey, primarily mapping the geology and mineral resources, to a modern geoscientific institution, maintaining excellence in geosciences, but placing these in a broader context of human development.
This has led to the launch of the Integrated and Multidisciplinary Mapping Programme, aiming to not only improve the detail and quality of the geoscience mapping, but respond to national developmental imperatives of South Africa.
A sound understanding of the underlying geology of the country forms part of the information base for sustainable development, identifying not only mineral resources, but also the suitability of land for various land-uses, the distribution of construction materials, as well as the availability and quality of groundwater.
Geoscientific studies are critical for the understanding of past environmental and climate change, to assist with understanding and planning for a bright South African future.