Understanding the socio-ecological aspects of acid mine drainage in Mpumalanga, South Africa

Emmanuel Captain Vellemu, of Rhodes University, South Africa, used a multidisciplinary approach to identify areas in the Mpumalanga province severely affected by acid mine drainage, and examined the legal frameworks and policies used to deal with the problem.

Emmanuel Captain Vellemu

Emmanuel Captain Vellemu


The extractive industries are the economic backbone of many African nations. The governance of these industries, however, is far from satisfactory. Africa Progress Report (2013) observed that, in many countries, multinational companies and political leaders do not give citizens their just revenue from their natural resources. The connections between corporations and state officials exclude both local communities and civil society. Extractive industries, in consequence, "leave the poor behind" and "harm the environment" (UNEP, 2013). This framework is unsustainable and has led to conflict in some countries. This study, therefore, took a multidisciplinary approach. It explored the chemical analysis of acid mine drainage using historical data, its socio-ecological effects, and; moving up to the governance level, the policy gaps and lapses in environmental management in South Africa. If the governance policy is exclusive of some actors, the study sought to develop an inclusive policy framework among the actors.


The study analysed historical water chemical data to identify areas heavily polluted by coal mining in Mpumalanga. It also examined legal frameworks and policies meant to tackle the problem.

Results and conclusions

The research revealed areas that are heavily polluted in Mpumalanga’s coal province (between 2004 and 2014) – most sites experience episodic events. The study also demonstrated that “hard science” alone cannot solve all mining conflicts. A shift in focus, with a combination of both social and ecological approaches, is needed. A major finding noted in this study is that many avoidable problems in South Africa have stemmed from the connections between mining companies and the government, to the exclution of local communities.

The study suggests that the first essential step is to generate methods and institutional arrangements that will ensure that all stakeholders taking part in the debate enjoy both accessibility (i.e. are able to make themselves heard) and responsiveness (i.e. are attentive to, not dismissive of, the others). The study also suggests that the mining industry needs to come up with new technologies that will tackle the problem sustainably without placing too much pressure on the resources and negatively affecting communities.


[1] Farrell LA, Hamann R, Mackres, E (2012). A clash of cultures (and lawyers): Anglo Platinum and mine-affected communities in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Resources Policy, 37(2), 194–204.

[2] McCarthy TS, Humphries MS. (2013). Contamination of the water supply to the town of Carolina, Mpumalanga, January 2012. South African Journal of Science, 109(9/10), 1–10.


Ikechukwu Umejesi, University of Fort Hare, East London, South Africa

Mike Thompson, Risk, Policy and Vulnerability Program, IIASA


Emmanuel Captain Vellemu, of Rhodes University, South Africa, is a citizen of Malawi and was funded by the IIASA South African National Member Organization during the SA-YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.   

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Last edited: 01 February 2016

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