This is a historic decision for conservationists. The High Court in Pretoria has delivered its verdict in the so-called deadly air case in a complaint against the South African government filed in 2019 by environmental organizations GroundWork and Vukani.
The justice has therefore given the government a year to improve air quality in the province of Mpumalanga, which is classified according to the NGO Greenpeace, as the region where the air is the most polluted in the world with high levels of nitrogen dioxide.
South Africa, which derives 80% of its electricity from coal, has a dozen coal-fired power plants within a perimeter of about 200 kilometers, managed mainly by Eskom, the national electricity company on the verge of bankruptcy, which was established in the region of Mpumalanga. These facilities are aging and very far from respecting environmental standards. This has earned the region the label of the most polluted place in the world.
Exposure to toxic products emitted by coal factories, such as sulfur dioxide, and heavy metals such as mercury and fine particles, has led to an “epidemic” of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and also contributes to strokes and premature births, according to NGOs.
A study presented by NGOs found that air pollution caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in the region in 2016.
“Coal kills”, insists Greenpeace, which deplores that a third of the smoke released by the factories then flies over the two neighboring megacities, Johannesburg and Pretoria.
In 2012, the South African government’s Department of Environmental Affairs published an air management plan for the region, but surprisingly, this was never implemented.
However, the decision of the Pretoria court will this time oblige the South African government to act as quickly as possible.
Court officials in their judgment concluded that poor air quality in the region is a “violation of the constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being”.
For a country ranked 14th among global polluters, this verdict is an unprecedented victory for environmental organizations.
“This is a groundbreaking decision which was made by the High Court in Pretoria, it relates to the very dangerous levels of air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld area of northern South Africa, and the Court declared that the very high levels of air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld area constitute a violation of Article 24 of the residents’ right to an environment which is not harmful to their health and well-being. The first time in South African law, and more specifically in constitutional law, that a High Court has made an order of this nature”, explains Timothy Lloyd, lawyer at the Center for Environmental Rights.
A World Bank study shows that each year nearly 20,000 South Africans die from air pollution.