In South Africa, 90% of the nation’s electricity is coal-powered. The country is also the seventh largest coal producer worldwide and is the ninth largest for carbon dioxide emissions per capita. Consequently, more than 2,200 people die every year in South Africa from the consequences of air pollution from coal-fired power plants. The most frequent causes of death are infections of the lower respiratory tract, pneumonia, cancer, strokes, and heart disease .
One of the hardest-hit places by coal pollution is a mining town of approximately 400,000 predominantly black and low-income people called Emalahleni, or “place of coal” in isiZulu. The name comes from the disproportionate number of coal mines, power stations, processing plants, and other polluting industries littering the area. In autumn 2018, an evaluation of comparative satellite data showed that no other region in the world was more heavily contaminated by nitrogen dioxide .
The main culprits include 12 coal-burning power stations run by state-owned Eskom along with a plant for liquefying coal and an oil refinery [3, 4]. In Vosman, a township in Emalahleni, the roofs and streets are covered in black residues and toxic dust penetrats the walls of people’s homes .
In response to this pollution afflicting her young son with severe asthma and bronchitis, Promise Mabilo became an environmental activist and founded organization Vukani Environmental Movement in 2006, now part of the Highveld Environmental Justice Network and Life After Coal Campaign . She also learned that the coal plants and mines grabbed agricultural land, threatening the ood and water supply and greatly contributing to poverty.
The government also failed to ensure industry compliance with air quality legislation, leading her to educate herself on legal rights . She has collected data in the townships as well as demonstrated both locally and worldwide, collaborating with an international network. Although she has advocated about the consequences of coal and coal mining to companies and the government alike, her efforts have often been ignored by officials, who deflect responsibility and fail to consult with affected peoples.
Officials also did not provide requested information before being threatened with legal action . Eskom’s Kendal power plant, where pollution abatement equipment was damaged in a 2018 strike, allegedly caused as many as 274 excess deaths between the start of 2018 and October 2019 .
In December 2019, the Centre for Environmental Rights and its supporters, including Mabilo, sent the Minister of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries “the Deadly Air case,” incriminating reports against Kendal in hopes to persuage government action enforcing compliance with demands to partially shut down the plant and operate the rest within regulations of Kendal’s emission allowances (which it regularly exceeds more than threefold). However, Eskom filed an objection and the case is currently suspended .
On June 7, 2019, Vukani and groundWork jointly filed a lawsuit against the government for the pollution caused by Eskom and Sasol . They demand people's basic right to a clean environment, which is already established in the South African constitution . The government has violated the Constitutional right to a healthy environment for the people living and working in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA), by failing to improve the deadly levels of air pollution . The coalition submitted submitted evidence-based objections to the proposed doubling of the standard .
In addition to the devastating effects of the pollution, the region has also greatly suffered from the coronavirus . Places like Emalahleni have inadequate medical infrastructure, and prior to the outbreak, were already overcrowded with mostly sick mothers and children plagued by coal pollution exposure symptoms such as burning eyes, inflamed sinuses, constant headaces, chronic lung diseases, diabetes, birth defects, premature deaths, and more . 2,000 premature deaths occur yearly from the pollution alone, 1,600 of which are in Mpumalanga . Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic became even more severe more those with respiratory problems. During the lockdown, South Africa doubled emission limits for sulfur dioxide pollution, a toxin produced from burning coal, on April 1, 2020 [8, 10]. Minimum emissions now allow 1,000mg of pollutant per m3, which is 28 times that of China and 10 times that of India . Research presented by the Life After Coal Campaign to the minister and the department has shown that 3,300 premature deaths would be caused by doubling the air pollution standard just for Eskom’s coal-fired power stations on top of those occurring amidst COVID-19 . Meanwhile, the government continues to invest in state-owned coal power company Eskom instead of promoting renewables. The company has been plundered for years and has accumulated a huge mountain of debt, yet it is currently building two new large-scale power plants in Mpumalanga. One is going up in Kusile, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Emalahleni. More information about Kusile can be found at: https://ejatlas.org/conflict/kusile-coal-fired-power-station-protest.
Although the government promotes the new facilities as more environmentally friendly owing to its improved technology, as Mabilo refuted, "Measures like these won't prevent more people in Mpumalanga from dying as a result of air pollution. We, too, finally need an energy transition” . Installing flue-gas desulfurization units, the accepted way of curbing sulfur dioxide emissions, costs billions of dollars per plant .