Medupi must learn to swim

The climate of Lephalale, the town where the mega coal-fired power station Medupi is being built, is extremely dry and unsuited for coal based energy generation.

In fact, Lephalale is so dry that there is not even enough water to fit the power station with the pollution abating technology that was a condition of its World Bank loan.

I was very surprised then, to visit the Medupi construction site in the midst of a flood.

Last week saw many parts of South Africa heavily affected by the persistent rainfall. But the Waterberg region of Limpopo, where over 1300 people had to be rescued, was especially hard struck.

The town of Lephalale in the Waterberg region usually only receives on average 400 mm of rain per year; an average which was far exceeded last week alone leading to flooding.

Adding to the cause of flooding was the over spill of the nearby Mokolo Dam, which is the main water resource for the Medupi Power Station.

Under the guidance of the Medupi Environmental Monitoring Committee, I visited the mega coal-fired power station Medupi, just after Eskom had threatened South Africa with nationwide load shedding because of “wet coal”.

It was quite ironic then, to find the acclaimed answer to South Africa’s energy crisis, Medupi, under water and mostly inaccessible.

Perhaps this is the reason why Eskom announced that the “Medupi power station wouldn’t have been able to prevent load-shedding”.

The above average rainfall posed numerous challenges for the Medupi build site; not limited to massive delays in construction and a sewage spill of more than 48 000 litres. 

Moreover, as the rain continued through the week all roads, which were already in a dire condition, leading to Lephalale were closed potentially adding more delays and complications to the completion time frames of the project.

Not to mention the burden that much of the Medupi labour force now faces as their homes and belongings have been washed away, and they face permanent relocation. Many of whom have been housed in a recognised flood plain.

When asked to explain the impact of the flood on Medupi and the potential of Medupi to provide electricity in the future given that certain climate change will increase the risk of flooding disasters such as the one witnessed that week, Eskom had its answer ready.

The power utility stated categorically that the flood currently being witnessed in Lephalale was a one in fifty year event.

Eskom further stressed that a coal-fired power station had a life span similar to a human being, and just as a man from Lephalale may experience a flood of this magnitude once in his life time, so would the Medupi coal-fired power station.

None the less, Eskom claimed that it would be well-equipped to proceed with underwater operations had such a flood had occurred during operational phase. But for anyone who has seen pictures of the recent flood at Lephalale, this statement seems an unlikely reality.

A quick search on the internet reveals that flooding is not a one in fifty year event for the Lephalale region. People under the age of fifty from nearby communities have witnessed such events before.

Although South Africa has a poor track record in recording climate related disasters, there is evidence to suggest that the Mokolo Dam has over spilled in 1996 and in 2008, leading to a similar situation as is being experienced now.

Further, climate change projections for the area, easily accessible from the Climate Systems Analysis Group’s Climate Information Portal, show that in the future total monthly rainfall in the area is expected to substantially increase, especially during late summer.

Therefore the town of Lephalale can expect more flooding in the future and within the 50 year life span of Medupi.

To make matters worse, the huge amounts of carbon dioxide emitted from the nearby Matimba power station is already impacting on the local climate of Lephalale, and localised climate change will become even more extreme once Medupi comes on line.

Last week’s flooding at Lephalale and the surrounding areas have once again sent the message that climate change is a reality that can no longer be ignored.

The floods further demonstrated how unsuitable coal is as a viable energy source.

Ultimately, the floods in Limpopo show the severe causal relationship between climate change related disasters and continued coal combustion.

Whilst evaluating the loss and damage that the floods will cause both the Limpopo Province and the national economies, environmental justice organisations such as Earthlife Africa Johannesburg hope that decision makers will begin to see the devastating impacts of their continued choice of coal as a strategic mineral.

It is clear that environmental safety is currently being sacrificed for the financial interests behind coal such as the ANC&39;s Chancellor House investment in Mepudi&39;s boilers.