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Dusty air, milky water: S. African photographer captures coal-mining pollution

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 25 October 2019 11:49 GMT

Cina Ndlovu gathers firewood at the roadside as she has no electricity at her home in Arbor, Mpumalanga, in South Africa, May 12, 2018. Photo courtesy of © Daylin Paul

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Johannesburg photo exhibit aims to reveal environmental price of coal on poor South African communities

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gas-billowing coal plants, cracked earth, abandoned mines and lifeless water. These are some of the stark images documenting coal mining pollution in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

These photographs, in a recently launched book called Broken Land and an exhibition in Johannesburg, display the work of South African photojournalist Daylin Paul who spent four years documenting the environmental impacts of South Africa's coal industry.

"In Mpumalanga there is dust everywhere. The water is milky. The air is a smoggy brown and it burns your throat to breathe," said 34-year-old, speaking from London, where he is hoping to bring his exhibition.

"People are sick with tuberculosis, asthma, diarrhoea and headaches," Paul said.

South Africa's power generation is dominated by coal, which produces more than 80% of power and makes the country one of the top 20 emitters of climate-changing carbon dioxide worldwide.

Duvha Power Station in Mpumalanga, South Africa, April 29, 2018. Photo courtesy of © Daylin Paul

With electricity power cuts returning in October to South African cities due to technical faults, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has said the country plans to boost electricity generation over the next decade with a mix of renewable energy and coal power.

According to government's Integrated Resource Plan released this month, by 2030 coal would account for 59% of electricity, with another 8% coming from hydropower, 6% from solar power, 18% from wind and 1% from gas and diesel.

For now coal is taking a heavy toll in the communities surrounding the country's coal plants and mines, who are "having their basic human rights taken away", Paul said.

"Rights to clean water, air (and) land to farm and support their families are not being fulfilled," said Paul, adding that he hoped the photographs made people angry enough to act.

"A big reason I am in London is because of the Extinction Rebellion (protests) taking place here," said Paul, referring to a global protest movement, launched in Britain, urging governments to take much swifter action against climate change.

"Climate change is the great fight of our lifetime," he said.

Big House, a settlement next to Komati Power Station in Mpumalanga, South Africa, May 1, 2018. Photo courtesy of © Daylin Paul

In August, a Greenpeace-funded study using NASA satellite data spotlighted the town of Kriel in Mpumalanga province as the second biggest sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions hotspot in the world.

In June, the national government was taken to court by local environmental groups for failing to tackle the air pollution levels.

Paul said many of the communities he photographed had also been displaced by mining companies, or forced to relocate after mine blasting sent cracks through the walls of their homes. Some were given government housing, he said.

Paul also climbed underground into abandoned mines where unemployed community members were carrying out small-scale mining to extract and sell pieces of coal to survive, he said.

"I am extremely claustrophobic," Paul said. "But if pregnant women and children were climbing underground, I had to too," he said.

Paul's believes his life was also saved by a man who flagged him away from what he did not know was quicksand.

"The mines are often left as open pits," said Paul. "When rain comes in, it turns the earth into quicksand filled with sulphuric acid. I was told that people had fallen in and burned to death."

Entrance to a community mine in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, in South Africa, June 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of © Daylin Paul

Paul said taking the photographs took an emotional toll, and he "left a part of myself there".

"I do not want people to sip wine and enjoy this exhibition," said Paul. "I want them to realise that this is all of our fight."

The exhibition ends at Johannesburg's Wits Art Museum on Oct. 27 and returns to Cape Town early next year.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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