A South African court on Friday upheld a complaint by activists that poor air quality in the coal belt is a breach of constitutional rights, giving the environment minister a year to enforce a clean air plan.
South Africa’s coal belt, east of the capital Pretoria and main city Johannesburg is home to an estimated 3.6 million people, as well as a dozen Eskom coal-fired power stations and some Sasol petrochemicals plants.
Activists, scientists and doctors, as well as a United Nations human rights expert have argued that the epidemic of nasty respiratory diseases in the area is a direct result of high levels of air pollution.
In a 2019 report, for the state-owned Council for Scientific and Industrial Research showed more than 5,000 South Africans die annually in the nation’s coal belt because the government has failed to fully enforce its own air quality standards, and that a quarter of households there have children with asthma.
The High Court in the capital Pretoria said Environment Minister Barbara Creecy had a legal duty to make regulations that enforce a government plan for cleaner air and that she had “unreasonably delayed” doing so.
A spokesperson for Creecy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, in her submission, the minister argued that while air pollution in the coal belt was indeed a problem, using the constitution to try to force the minister’s hand violated the separation of powers — an argument the court rejected.
The court ruling will require the government to take tougher action against heavy polluters such as liquid fuel producer Sasol and state power company Eskom, which is drowning in debt and struggling to keep the lights on as it is.