There has been a lot of emotional and comic push and pull around the issue of marine phosphate mining. Some proponents of phosphate mining , such as businessman Knowledge Katti, are accusing those disagreeing with this activity of being anti-development elements.
It seems like Katti wants to equate Namibia to Kuisebmond and Mondesa locations alone. This is a calculated manoeuvre to emotionally blackmail the political leadership of our country, in particular, and the Namibian people in general.
Currently, proposals to mine phosphate are under consideration in Namibia, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and many other countries. In New Zealand authorities had refused the application by Chatham Rock Phosphate Limited for a marine consent to mine marine phosphorite nodules on the Chatham Rise.
There are two companies in Namibia pushing for phosphate mining, namely Namibia Marine Phosphate (NMP) based in Walvis Bay and the Lüderitz-based operations, owned by Israelites, Lev Leviev Namibia Phosphate (LLNP), a mother company of Sakawe Mining Corporation (SAMICOR) belonging to Leviev Groups of Companies (LGC).
Both companies NMP and LLNP were given mining licences by the Ministry of Mines and Energy but do not have the Environmental Clearance Certificates that are issued by the Environmental Commissioner of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. The Environmental Clearance Certificate is the legal requirement necessary before any activity mining commence in our country (Environmental Management Act 2007).
It is important that we understand what will happen to our seabed when the mining of phosphate begins should it be allowed to go ahead – although we are already mining diamonds offshore Namibia of which many would question: why can’t we mine marine phosphates as we do with marine diamonds?
However, in terms of marine diamond deposits, the marine depositional settings are simply those of deltaic and wave action deposit and re-deposition. Marine diamonds beneficiation involves simple mechanical processing methods and nothing chemical is added or subtracted except most of the gemstones.
Besides, ongoing environmental research and monitoring continuously revealed that fauna and flora prefer and thrive at reworked grounds; in short, plants and animals prefer disturbed ground because nutrients are brought to seabed surfaces. Gravel exposure to seabed surfaces allows for the development of new seaweeds and coral that will continue to sustain life there, as if nothing happened. An added advantage, diamond mining and deposit are also restricted to shallower water.
Meanwhile, the extraction of marine phosphate is associated with a lot of possible irreversible destruction which can and will be detrimental to the sea ecosystem, with absolutely no possible mitigation factors. The negative destruction ranges from extraction to the end results; and it gets worse with every stage of beneficiation. Today, let us look at the threats posed by mere dredging extraction of marine phosphate sediments for a start. There exists a soft viscous and volatility at places of mud layer underlying the top-lying marine phosphate sediments aimed at by these industries. In average, the muddy layer is within a meter depth at seabed.
Ideally you would not want this layer ever exposed at seafloor, especially at this area. Thanks to Mother Nature, this is concealed by a blanket-like covering layer across all our fishing spawning grounds with exact equilibrium to sustain life there. This is a ‘shelly phosphatic sand’, a blanket-like layer that consists of fine sand concretions of pelletal phosphoride (authigenic components) rich in P2O5. Naturally, this fine sand is mixed with finer silica sand blown from the Namib Desert (terrigenous).
Together they are mixed with benthic and planktonic micro-exoskeleton foraminifera, etc. (biogenic components) and sometimes with clay to form an intact matrix. Large components are dominantly shells and traces of various fossilized bones. It is this top layer of the seabed that the marine phosphate miners are eyeing to strip off from the seafloor by means of a vacuum-cleaner-like dredging system, with absolutely no imaginable replacement when and if mining commences. The economic phosphate thickness ranges from 1 centimetre to a thickness of up to 3 meters.
The underlying mud however, just like the inside cores of the pellets, consists of various harmful substances to the environment, i.e. phosphate itself, cadmium, radioactive elements, etc. Hydrogen sulfide is also said to be associated with some parts of the deposit, just to mention a few.
It is important to note that fisheries contribute immensely to our GDP. It brings in a lot of foreign currency through the export of our fish products, most of which are value-added product. Through the value addition, a lot of employment opportunities are created and a lot of Namibians are employed. It is therefore important to understand that, in the first place, phosphate mining will not benefit our sustainable economic development in the long run; no matter how beautiful the picture might be painted. The biggest stake of the shareholding belongs to the foreigners, and Namibians are only acting as middlemen who will disappear after the whole process of getting the clearance is completed. They can deny this, but this is the truth.
Phosphate mining is said to be envisaged to employ around 150 people as direct employees. This number is too small compared to the fishing industry that employs about 14 000 direct employees. Let us borrow statistics from the Namibia Statistics Agency which reveal a statistical average of eight people in a household in Namibia. A small calculation shows that phosphate mining, with its adverse calamitous damage to our sea ecosystem, will indirectly only have an impact on 1 200 people, compared to the fishing industry that has an impact on about 112 000 people.
• Sioni Aluta Iikela is PYL Secretary for Health, Population and Environment.