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Marine Phosphate Mining

posted May 16, 2012, 3:44 AM by Earth Org Namibia   [ updated May 27, 2016, 4:29 PM ]

The Constitution of Namibia states that the government of Namibia must maintain "…ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity of Namibia and utilization of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future.” [The Constitution, Section 95(l)].  The late honourable Chief Justice, Justice Mahomed described the Constitution in a landmark decision stating that the Constitution " a mirror reflecting the national soul/the identification of the ideals and aspirations of a nation, the articulation of the values bonding its people and disciplining its government."

We are one of the few countries in the world with the protection of the environment enshrined in the Constitution. It is our duty to honour, protect, and defend this provision.  The living Constitution is the supreme law of the land, which governs the creation of all laws and the interpretation of those laws.  Our elected government officials take an oath to uphold, protect and defend all provisions in the Constitution. 

In Namibia, we are now being asked to compromise the integrity of our supreme law by promoting industry that will directly and dramatically decrease the sustainability of the living  marine resources, leaving behind an ocean that cannot provide for future generations.

Worldwide, phosphate mining and processing has left a serious pollution problem behind. This is because phosphate rock contains various metals and radioactive elements.  Among these elements are heavy metals which include: Cadmium, Arsenic, Lead, Mercury, Chromium, Vanadium, Selenium and two radioactive elements, Uranium and Thorium.  Levels of radioactive materials are typically much higher in marine phosphate.

Marine phosphate mining has never been done anywhere else in the world and Namibian coastal waters are now facing the threat of being the testing ground.  Phosphate mining of the seafloor is a major concern for leading marine scientists worldwide, yet these concerns have not yet been adequately considered in Namibia. In Australia, the concerns are so grave that the Government of the Northern Territory considers all seafloor mining as such a threat that a moratorium has been imposed until 2015 while further environmental and risk assessments are conducted. Yet, international companies, including those from Australia, aim to mine the seafloor in Namibia for phosphates despite the dangers that will be imposed on the marine ecosystem and the sustainable industries that rely on it.

To date, public and scientific consultation as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment process has been inadequate and not in accordance with Namibian law, International Seabed Authority guidelines, or International Best Practice standards. As such, the Environmental Commissioner of Namibia has required more consultation before consideration of such Assessments.   

Specialists and international experts have identified significant and critical issues that require further investigation and to date these have not been addressed by the companies seeking to mine marine phosphates. Some of the critical environmental impacts include:

- Dredging of 3 m of the sea floor will cause direct destruction to the building blocks of the marine ecosystem (benthos layer) as well as certain fish stocks such as monk;

- Direct harm to hatcheries for fish species such as juvenile monk and hake;

- Potential effects on spawning;

-Effect of disturbed ecosystem (turbidity) on marine predators including hake and African penguins;

- The release of hazardous substances including radioactive materials, methane gas, and hydrogen sulphide will directly kill wildlife and cause many commercial fish stocks including hake and monk to be unmarketable and not sale quality as food quality regulations for export are stringent;

- Plumes will negatively affect zoo-plankton, another building block of the Benguela current marine ecosystem;

- Soluble phosphate entering the water and acting like a fertilizer will increase algal blooms and harm shellfish and other species;

- Change in the nutrient balance in upwelling will affect the Benguela Current marine ecosystem which relies heavily on the upwelling of nutrients which are carefully balanced;

- Increase in phosphate nutrients will increase algae and bacteria in the water making salt for salt mining too poor of a quality for sale;

- Poor quality sea water will hamper the aquaculture industry;

- Noise and hazardous waste pollution will directly affect and potentially damage marine mammals irreversibly.

On land there are additional impacts which include, inter alia:  a buffer pond and stack of shells by the internationally protected RAMSAR site of Sandwich Harbour- a National Park;  The pond will contain radioactive substances; a pipeline will cross through two National Parks carrying radioactive substances; a processing plant and tailings dam by the sewerage works in Walvis Bay will disperse radioactive materials and chemicals into underground water and through the air; potential for flood events and sea level rise will cause radioactive and chemical waste to be released throughout the town of Walvis Bay as well as into the surrounding National Parks; plans to release waste products and seawater back into the ocean will cause additional negative impacts on marine life; and water requirements of 320 cubic metres of fresh non-potable water per hour will impact on the local desert communities and environment to which this fresh water is a vital resource.

It is extremely important for serious studies to be conducted on all of these major impacts.  Yet on site studies have not been conducted by the mining companies on most of these aspects. As a result, the likely significant effects have been effectively brushed under the surface.  Cumulative impacts of various activities on the marine and land environment have also not been considered.  Yet according to Namibian law, these studies must be conducted prior to any decision being taken and the cumulative and potential significant effects of activities on the environment must be considered in time and carefully.

Namibian law states that renewable resources must be used on a sustainable basis for the benefit of present and future generations.  Fishing, aquaculture, tourism and salt mining, when managed properly, have proven to offer a substantial sustainable benefit to the Namibian economy over the long-term.  In fact the fishing industry alone offers $4.8 billion dollars in foreign currency earnings and directly employs 13380 people.  Yet marine phosphate mining is a direct threat to the continued existence of this and other industries as demonstrated by a significant number of marine and social specialists.  In Namibia, the government is required to prioritize industry that causes the least damage to the environment over industry that causes more damage. Simply put, in no way must an unsustainable short-term option be adopted at the expense of the sustainable long-term option. 

According to Namibian law, damage to the environment must be prevented and activities which cause such damage must be reduced, limited or controlled. In addition, lack of full scientific certainty may not be used as a reason to postpone measures to prevent environmental degradation. The onus is therefore on the marine mining companies to remove all doubt of the environmental impact if they wish for the mining projects to go forward.  Yet, they do not intend to spend extra money to conduct actual studies.  Instead, they expect the government of Namibia to make a decision based on reports that have very little scientific basis in the hope of gaining a larger profit.

Namibia's Vision 2030 warns of this and states that it is unacceptable for there to be increasing pollution, coastal degradation and biodiversity loss.  It is also unacceptable for industry to become too powerful and exert pressure on the government.

In Namibia it is the duty of the government to ensure a sustainable environment for current and future generations.  The people of Namibia are now at a crossroads.  They must choose whether they will fall under the pressure of international mining giants to ignore provisions of law that protect the environment and the people of Namibia or whether they will take pride in their entrusted duty to ensure a sustainable environment for current and future generations. 

Our youth face a bleak future.  By 2050, studies show that there may be no more fish in the sea because of what we are doing to the ocean.  It is time for us to rethink what we are doing.   We face an ethical dilemma as we are deciding what world children and younger generations will be faced with.  May we set the example for the rest of the world on what a sustainable marine environment for current and future generations' looks like. 

Three time Olympian, 7 time Olympic medalist (5 gold, 2 silver), Aaron Peirsol, is one of the supporters of the right to protect Namibia's marine environment against the threat of marine phosphate mining and has supported our petition on 

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