08/20/2014 01:37 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

World Bank's Environmental Injustice in South Africa

This post was co-authored by Dominique Doyle, Energy Policy Officer at Earthlife Africa Jhb.

Two weeks ago on the side-lines of the U.S-Africa Business Forum in Washington, D.C., World Bank President Kim used the metaphor of an "almost energy apartheid" to validate the move to fund more coal-fired energy infrastructure in Africa. The metaphor was mistaken; both figuratively and literally. There are few better examples than in South Africa, the home of apartheid, to show how large scale World Bank investments in dirty energy actually work towards entrenching lines of poverty and class; rather than relieving them.

On April 8, 2010, the World Bank approved a loan of $ 3.75 billion to South Africa for constructing the Medupi mega coal-fired power station. The power station will be the fourth largest in the world. According to the Bank, the development objective of Medupi was "to enable Eskom South Africa to enhance its power supply and energy security in an efficient and sustainable manner so as to support both economic growth objectives and South Africa's long term carbon mitigation strategy." Looking back, with the Medupi name now tarnished by substantial delays, corruption and cost overruns; this reasoning is almost as bizarre as Kim's energy apartheid metaphor.

Eskom is South Africa's sole energy utility, and is responsible for Medupi construction. Through its work at the Medupi site, Eskom has succeeded in cementing environmental injustice in several ways, while its management knew all along what was going on. In South Africa, it is the poor who bear the brunt of poor air quality caused by coal-fired power stations. These power stations are situated around where poor mining communities live and around communities who live in poorly constructed houses that provide little protection against poor ambient air quality. These communities further do not have access to adequate health care.

In addition, the poor are also hit hardest by the effects of climate change. As one of the largest coal plants in the world, this establishment will further exacerbate the climate problem.

Eskom is building the Medupi power station in the water-scarce region of Lephalale in Limpopo Province of South Africa. At the end of 2011, a leaked World Bank Inspection Panel (IP) report revealed that it was worried about the lack of consideration for water scarcity in the Waterberg region. The rivers that nourish the area, which is rich in biodiversity and natural beauty, are seasonal and inconsistent. The current mining, power generation, municipal and agricultural activities in the area are all supported by one dam, the Mokolo Dam, which will be unable to also provide for Medupi's activities. Already located in the area is another massive Eskom owned and operated coal-fired power station: Matimba.

The increase in mining and power generation activities, which has led to increased demand for water, means that there is less water available for communities in the area. Poorer communities who make use of communal taps for their household needs are the worst affected by the diminishing water supply and often complain that their taps run dry or run dirty water while the coal industry reserves the cleanest supply. Besides this, sand rivers used for agriculture needs were hit badly as well when Eskom contractors' dug the sand for the power station construction needs, leaving communities that depend on the river with less water because it started to disappear as sand was taken away.

And as if the cost overruns and environmental issues were not enough, another social problem adds to the pile of issues that have turned this project into local communities' biggest nightmare. Medupi has been possibly built on the graves of fourteen families. The families say that they were never properly consulted about the project, in a language which they were comfortable with, when construction started seven years ago. Eskom is now under pressure to start a revised social consultation process because the Independent Review Mechanism of the African Development Bank, co-funding the project, found that "no real effort has been made to identify such unmarked graves and the risk of desecration remains substantial." Maintaining access to graves and communicating with ancestors is a critical element to many African belief systems.

Video credit & copyright: eNCA

In April 2015, the South African Minimum Emission Standards will come into effect. The Minimum Emission Standards (MES) are part of South African Air Quality Legislation, which is already weak, and set maximum levels of air pollutants that can be emitted by various industrial processes. A major selling point of the World Bank loan for the Medupi power station was that Medupi would install Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD), a technology that would support the power plant in reducing its sulphur dioxide emissions, which is a dangerous pollutant that the MES is attempting to control. Eskom has, however, applied to the National Department of Environmental Affairs to postpone Medupi's commitments to the MES and to postpone installing FGD on the grounds that the technology is too expensive and water intensive to install. The World Bank now has little to say on Eskom's failure to comply, as the poor hit hard are to witness more environmental destruction and higher costs.

Environmental injustice is a universally repeated phenomenon and occurs when the most marginalized in society pay the highest costs for environmental degradation, yet receive the least benefits. Environmental injustice is comparable with the human rights abuses of apartheid because it allows the development of certain groups over others. The poor will continue to carry the burden of the poor air quality caused by coal combustion while they are already suffering from an unequal distribution of access to safe water, discriminatory segregation of people from their heritage, and rising financial costs. With such an example at its hands, and proven by its own Inspection Department, there is no way the World Bank's President can prove that coal will help Africans overcome poverty and achieve shared prosperity. Coal is the source of the problem and should be treated as such.