Aerial reconnaissance of potenially impacted villages

Exploration is the first phase of a mining project and offers an opportunity to collect baseline environmental and social data which is crucial for the future development of the project.

The collection of baseline data allows for the identification of critical biophysical and social data which may impact on the project viability by adding additional cost or may result in the “No Go” option.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 10 2018

Mining activities can significantly benefit surrounding communities and local economies. A sound understanding of the local biophysical and socio-economic environment is required in order to facilitate compliance with legislation from exploration and throughout the life of mine (LoM).

AUTHORS: GCS’s Andrew Johnstone, Paige Kelly, Prevlan Chetty, Sbongiseni Mazibuko, Sofi Napier and Sharon Meyer

This can be achieved by conducting an Environmental and Social Baseline Study (ESBS) during the mineral exploration phase.

In many cases this opportunity is missed, resulting in complications in the environmental permitting and social impact assessments.

Data collected during the ESBS provides an analysis of the environmental and social sensitivity of the project area and against which benchmarks of impacts of a project can be rated.

Furthermore, the data facilitates early identification of fatal flaws or risks to the project; saves time and money during the development stages of the project; differentiates between real and perceived impacts; identifies issues to be addressed in the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA); and defines sensitive areas to be avoided.

Surface water

Water resource identified as a sensitive receptor to impact

Water baseline data provides indications of the background qualities and quantities of the ambient water resources in the project area.

The information allows for assessment of water resource sensitivity, which can contribute to the mining water management strategy.

Additionally, by identifying the local water environment, the mine layout and orientation can be designed to avoid direct impact to sensitive surface water features, wetlands or the modification of the natural hydrology.

In addition, existing users can be identified and potential sources of water can be identified for the proposed project.


Similarly, an ESBS will include establishing a monitoring system that documents groundwater conditions during the exploration phase.

Gathering information in the early stages of exploration allows for comprehensive hydrological and hydrogeological datasets.

This allows for the identification of existing groundwater users and sensitivity of the aquifer in the exploration lease area.

Drilling rig during exploration phase

Hydrogeological data can be collected either through a hydrocensus or by means of the hydrogeological use of boreholes drilled for exploration.

A hydrocensus gathers all the available information about groundwater related features in the study area, including any water features, water supply sources, and any sources of potential contamination.

The hydrocensus provides a complete inventory of baseline groundwater conditions, including demand and supply status.


Biodiversity studies are required by the National Environmental Management Act (Act 107 of 1998, as amended) and the National Water Act (Act 36 of 1998, as amended) to support the Environmental Impact Assessment and Water Use Licence Application processes, amongst others.

Conducting floral and faunal investigations, both for terrestrial and aquatic habitats, at the Exploration Phase provides valuable input to project risk assessment and identification of environmental permits and licensing requirements.

These studies identify sensitive habitats, species and/or communities that need to be avoided by the mining activities.

The ESBS biodiversity data collected during the exploration phase is useful in guiding site selection to minimise potential environmental impacts, and informs the planning around budgets and timeframes, given that biodiversity studies are seasonal.

Left too late in the process, biodiversity studies can have a significant impact on the project schedule. In some cases investigations need to be conducted over four seasons (two years), particularly when sensitive species are involved.

Given that water is an important but fragile commodity, it’s vital to understand the inter-relationship of the proposed mining project, local water supply and demand, and ecological reserve requirements.

Source-Pathway-Receptor modelling at the exploration phase gauges the potential risk of impact to water resources, and mitigation requirements can be recommended to reduce or eliminate impact to the identified receptors.

By undertaking the necessary studies during the exploration phase, fatal flaws or risks can be identified, analysed and discussed with the regulator so that the feasibility of continuing with the project within the selected parameters is fully understood.

A good understanding of the baseline biological environment is essential for a well-developed environmental management and mitigation programme, and ultimately, a practical rehabilitation plan.


Soils, land use and land capability are key considerations during project site selection.  South African legislation enforces the protection of areas with high agricultural potential to ensure food security.

During the Exploration Phase, a desktop study, supported by soil sampling, can provide valuable information on the soils and land capability of a proposed mining area.

The Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (Act 43 of 1983, as amended) provides classes of agricultural potential, where high potential soils must be conserved and cannot be developed.

By understanding the restriction at the exploration phase, the proponent can evaluate alternative layouts early on in the mine planning.

Social impact studies

A Socio-Economic Assessment (SEA) during the exploration phase investigates the probable impacts of the development on the daily lives and activities of local communities.

SEA considers the social and economic conditions of local communities, but also evaluates the number and extent of communities requiring resettlement and/or compensation, community expectations around job creation, services and training, as well as government expectations and legislative framework requirements.

The primary benefits of conducting an SEA at the exploration phase are reduced timeframes, identifying the need for a resettlement action plan (RAP) and providing forecasts of budgets and timeframes for this process, and important community issues can be timeously identified, addressed and resolved.

Engagement has the added benefit of providing important local knowledge to the technical team.


Implementing a RAP and a livelihood restoration plan (LRP) is a controversial, high profile process which should only be undertaken with the assistance of experienced social consultants.

Identifying the need for resettlement and compensation early on in the project provides an opportunity to assess alternatives in order to avoid uprooting communities.

If resettlement is unavoidable, identifying the need in advance allows for appropriate project planning that includes a rigorous and effective resettlement programme.

Stakeholder engagement carried out during the exploration phase of a mining project allows for a comprehensive understanding of the local issues, identification of potential resistance to the project, stimulates land negotiations, and promotes transparency and communication.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS)

The exploration phase of any project generates a huge amount of spatial data. Managing this data, and transforming it into useful information, is a critical component of the exploration phase as well as subsequent phases.

At GCS, our GIS division integrates all the data obtained from on-site studies involved in the Exploration Phase, including exploration drilling activities, water studies, social studies and environmental baseline studies, into thematic layers to enable holistic decision making.

Baseline spatial data plays a significant role in optimising the exploration phase.

A screening assessment, for example, would typically be run as part of a site selection route which integrates a variety of topographical, hydrological, environmental and social baseline datasets collected during the Exploration Phase.

Borehole and exploration logs are commonly fed into the GIS environment include, which are then used to create conceptual hydrogeological models.

These models are then used in subsequent phases in order to further develop the background site geology and infrastructure.

Spatial data housed by GIS provides accessible information for the mine design and layout. In addition, the conceptual models help to provide financial forecasting.

Another benefit of incorporating GIS into a project during the exploration phase is that continuously updated, time-based trend analysis across all relevant datasets becomes possible.

This becomes an incredibly useful tool throughout the project lifecycle.


The effective collection and analysis of baseline data at the Exploration Phase provides an invaluable tool for decision making, design and layout planning, alternative analysis, financial forecasting, and project scheduling.

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