Witbank, a town just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, has some of the world’s most polluted air – that’s according to new research reported yesterday.
The massively high levels of pollution can be directly linked to the national utility company Eskom and its string of coal-fired power stations that run through the South African province Mpumalanga.
In fact, the Witbank area is home to the country’s largest coalfields, and no fewer than 11 coal-fired power stations, with a new mega coal-fired power station (Kusile) under construction in the area. (Kusile will be one of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world.) If our air is the ‘worst in the world’ now, I can only imagine what it will be like when this new coal-fired power station begins to burn 17 million tons of coal per year.
This horrifying air pollution data makes the entire Witbank area nothing less than an environmental crime scene. Such high levels of air pollution create particularly high risks for health impacts like respiratory problems (including asthma), cancer, heart disease, strokes and even death. The threats posed by coal are real, and we are living with them right now.
Coal expansion puts our water under threat (Eskom uses 10 000 litres of water per second because almost all of the electricity that the utility produces comes from coal), and clearly puts people’s health at risk. Corporations continue to profit from coal, while the people of this country pay the price. The government’s position that we should continue to mine our coal reserves for the foreseeable future, and Eskom’s position that coal is the only electricity choice they are prepared to invest in is short-sighted and puts all South Africans at risk.
Having the ‘world’s dirtiest air’ should be the line that makes us turn back from more investments in coal. There really is no future in coal. Instead South Africa must urgently shift away from coal, towards a clean energy future, based on renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Melita Steele has an MSc in Environmental Science and is passionate about working to change the world one small piece at a time. She works for Greenpeace Africa as a climate and energy campaigner, focusing on issues related to coal.