News: Cradle`s heritage status in danger

2008-11-27

The Cradle of Humankind and the Vredefort Dome should lose their World Heritage Site status or be downgraded to the list of global sites in danger because little is being done to stem water pollution threatening these sites.

This is according to a karst expert, who believes acidic pollution from historic mining operations on the Witwatersrand could irreversibly damage the world-famous ancient hominid fossils of the Cradle of Humankind, featuring the Sterkfontein Caves.

Acidic mine drainage flows into the dolomite karst, which is formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone and dolomite and overlays almost 70 percent of Gauteng.

Because of highly polluted water in the Vaal River, the Vredefort Dome`s heritage status is also at risk, says the expert, who requested to remain anonymous.

"The rationale for the removal, or listing the Cradle of Humankind in danger, is simple," says the expert, who has called on his contemporaries to condemn the government`s alleged apathy on the pollution of the sites.

"The authorities have failed the `world-populous` in the preservation and conservation of the site It would appear [the Cradle is] completely wrecked Industry has been given carte blanche to pollute due to the authorities` apathy with the primary polluters - the mines."

As gold mines on the West Rand have stopped operating, the water table has returned to pre-mining levels, but since 2002 more than 15 megalitres of contaminated water has been flowing out, or decanting, onto the surface daily, into rivers and karst systems.

This mine drainage, which is highly acidic, highly saline and contains raised levels of toxic heavy metals, has found its way into the Tweelopies Spruit flowing through the Krugersdorp Game Reserve and towards the Cradle of Humankind.

But the expert maintains there has been little or no intervention from authorities despite warnings issued more than a decade ago.

"Many millions of rands of rare cave minerals and fossils are being destroyed as a result of the ongoing unchecked pollution.

Radionuclides have been allowed to mix with groundwater, which is being used to irrigate crops and used as drinking water.

"Heavy metals are being allowed to accumulate in karst systems, which will take hundreds if not thousands of years to rehabilitate or reverse … The destabilisation of the karst will start to rear its ugly head with the formation of sinkholes."

Sewage, he says, is flowing into the system because of "dilapidated sewage reticulation systems", and diseases like cholera and typhoid could become commonplace.

"Do you honestly believe South Africa can justifiably say they are entitled to be the curators of a World Heritage Site?

The government were warned this was going to be the outcome some five years back if they did not heed a call to identify all polluters.

Pollution is becoming alarming and is now completely out of hand from industry, sewage and mining When they get around to investigate the global pollution contribution taking place in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, I hope the government will take the groundwater pollution more seriously if the nomination is retracted."

But Peter Mills, the environment manager of the Cradle of the Humankind, says it`s unlikely Unesco`s World Heritage Convention will drop the Cradle`s status.

"They haven`t even written to us that they`re slightly concerned. There`s a huge acid mine decant problem - everyone is aware of it. It will cost billions to fix.

The big problem here is the water going to the karst, which is like a big sponge. As the management authority, we`re hugely concerned, but we`re working on it.

"There`s a hell of a lot going on, with monthly meetings with the mines and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry," he says.

"No one knows how water flows through the system. We don`t even know if the mine decant is reaching the fossil site. In spite of the 15 megalitres, there`s no evidence it`s coming close to the Sterkfontein caves."

Water Affairs said a study was being conducted to determine if the decant was having an impact on the Cradle site.



o This article was originally published on page 9 of The Star on November 15, 2008

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