Literally choking on some of the world’s worst air pollution, residents of the town of Middelburg and other communities in the coal-intensive Highveld plateau of South Africa are suing the federal government for violating their constitutional right to a healthy environment.
Located east of Johannesburg and home to 4.7 million people, the Highveld plateau is a veritable Mordor, “riddled with coal mines, coal-fired power plants, petrochemical facilities, metal smelters, chemical producers, and other industrial complexes,” reports Yale Environment 360.
“Researchers estimate that heightened air pollution levels in the Highveld cause hundreds of early deaths every year,” E360 notes. “A 2019 Greenpeace report ranked the region among the highest in the world for emissions of two dangerous pollutants, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.”
A separate 2019 study by the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town found that “at their peak, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in the Highveld’s industrial region are 10 times higher than those the [World Health Organization] considers safe for human health,” and that fine particulate matter in the region “likely causes at least 300 early deaths per year.”
Citizens of the Highveld, many of whom live and work in slums situated in the shadow of the mines and industrial facilities, suffer daily “one of the worst situations of air pollution in the world,” said David Boyd, a United Nations specialist on human rights and the environment.
Such a toxic environment is “largely a product of South Africa’s longstanding dependence on coal, which provides nearly 90% of the country’s electricity,” E360 explains. Its lengthy dominance likely owes to “close ties between members of South Africa’s ruling party and the coal sector”—ties that are “enriching a few to the detriment of many.”
Containing roughly 50% of South Africa’s recoverable coal reserves, the Highveld currently hosts no less than 12 coal-fired power plants, as well as a behemoth Sasol coal-to-petroleum refinery. That single facility “generates more greenhouse gas emissions than entire countries such as Norway and Portugal.”
But the people of the Highveld are rising up. Done with watching diseases like asthma and lung cancer afflict swaths of their population, a number of environmental groups are now suing the South African government, charging that, in its failure to clean up the region’s deadly air pollution, it has violated residents’ constitutional right to “an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being.”
The case, which will be heard in May, is the first in South Africa to invoke constitutional protections in challenging air pollution. And it could have international repercussions.
“While few countries recognize clean air as a fundamental right, more than 150 acknowledge the right to a healthy environment, according to Boyd,” E360 writes. The case could make “tackling air pollution a human rights obligation,” causing effects that reach beyond South Africa.
“Right now, it’s not clear that the right to a healthy environment includes the right to breath clean air,” said Boyd.
The case comes 13 years after South Africa first recognized, on paper, the level of poor air quality suffered by citizens in the Highveld. Now, with next to no progress in evidence, the plaintiffs are going forward with their suit, supported by the Centre for Environmental Rights. On the table are regulations with teeth that would prevent South African utility Eskom from exceeding emissions limits for particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides—as the company did by “more than 3,000 times” between April 2016 and December 2017.
The plaintiffs are also seeking functional air monitoring stations, as many of existing stations in the Highveld are out of order, according to the government’s own midterm review of the region’s management plan, which was mapped out in 2012.
Setting the people’s demand for regulation in context, E360 describes how the government currently “allows some of the region’s biggest polluters to dodge complying with emissions limits,” with Eskom once again a chief offender. “In 2013,” the news magazine notes, “Eskom submitted applications to postpone compliance at 11 of its coal-fired power plants located in the Highveld Priority Area, which the government largely granted.”
Corruption is a further problem, adds E360, citing a 2015 case in which the son of then-president Jacob Zuma received a lucrative mining contract from Eskom, even though the coal he was selling was of inferior (and highly polluting) quality.