(The Namibian)-A DECISION by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry to allow a planned new uranium mine in an arid area southwest of Usakos to use large quantities of underground water is being challenged in the High Court.
The case questioning the Ministry's decision to grant water abstraction permits to Valencia Uranium was filed with the High Court on Thursday.
Valencia Uranium plans to start a mine at farm Valencia some 55 kilometres southwest of Usakos.
The mine would be one of several new uranium mines being established in the Erongo Region.
As far as could be established yesterday, the case is the first of its kind in Namibia in which a land owner in an area close to such a planned mine is questioning the way in which scarce natural resources are intended to be used by such a new mine.
It has been filed against the company, the Minister of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, the Minister of Mines and Energy, the Minister of Environment and Tourism, Government and the owner of farm Valencia.
Roger Laine, Chief Geologist of Valencia Uranium and a Director of the company's Canadian mother company, Forsys Metals Corp, refused to tell The Namibian yesterday whether the company intends opposing the application.
The case was with the company's lawyers, he said, while also refusing to say who the lawyers are.
It is however understood that the case is being opposed, and is set to be heard in the High Court tomorrow.
The case was filed by Namib Plains Farming and Tourism CC, a close corporation that is the owner of farm Namib Plains, which is a portion of farm Namib Plaas and is situated about five kilometres from Valencia.
The CC wants the court to order that Valencia Uranium may not extract groundwater from the area for which it has been given water abstraction permits, and that these permits be reviewed and set aside.
In a sworn statement filed with the court, one of the members of the CC, Marieta Engelbrecht, states that their farm is situated in a "totally undisturbed" natural habitat where wildlife and bird species are dependent on natural underground water, which is either pumped to the surface through boreholes or have formed fountains.
Farm Namib Plains borders the Khan River, and part of an ancient underground water reservoir, referred to as a "palaeo channel", lies underneath it, Engelbrecht states.
She states that four permits issued to Valencia Uranium by the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry on February 12 this year entitles the company to drill boreholes and extract water on farm Namib Plains and other privately owned farms which are situated in the Khan River and above the palaeo channel.
These permits however were issued without the owners of Namib Plains and other affected landowners from the area being able to give input to the Ministry before the decision was taken.
It was also done without any proper studies being done to first determine what effect the extraction of underground water would have on water tables in the area, Engelbrecht claims.
She states that the permits granted to Valencia Uranium would allow the company to draw up to 1 000 cubic metres of water a day - that is, a million litres of water a day - from the Khan River and the palaeo channel.
This will, or at best for the company and Government and the Ministers being sued, may have "an irreversible damaging effect on the environment", according to Engelbrecht.
"The water table will, or at best may, drop significantly, consequently the trees are bound to die, applicant's existing two boreholes will dry up, and fountains (of which applicant has two) may dry up causing wild animals to die," she states.
She adds that before Valencia Uranium draws any water from the palaeo channel, verifiable empirical data is required.
"Currently, such data is not available.
Prior to that, no meaningful decision could have been made by (the Minister of Agriculture, Water and Forestry)," she states.
Engelbrecht charges that the owners of Namib Plains were given "a distorted, if not deliberately false picture" of Valencia Uranium's intentions on the use of underground water.
In April last year, company representatives first gave assurances that a desalination plant would be built at the coast to produce water for the mine's use and that the mine would not extract underground water for any purpose, she says.
By the first week of December, another representative of the company said that the mine would use 300 cubic metres of groundwater a day during the construction of the mine and the first part of its mining phase, she adds.
By February 12, another company representative informed interested parties that the company had applied for permits to extract up to 500 cubic metres of groundwater a day.
That was the same date that the permits allowing the company to extract up to 1 000 cubic metres of groundwater a day were issued.
According to Engelbrecht, one of these permits allows the company to drill boreholes over the palaeo channel.
The same permit also states that "only once it is conclusively found that groundwater abstraction from this palaeo channel of the Khan River is feasible and sustainable, without any adverse effects to downstream users, may a separate application for groundwater abstraction be submitted for consideration by the Ministry".
A permit allowing the company to draw and use water from these same boreholes covered by that permit was however issued on the same date, Engelbrecht states.
These two permits, she charges, "make a mockery of logic.
It is well known that it has not been shown that no adverse effect will occur to downstream users as a result of boreholes to be drilled in the palaeo channel."
Valencia Uranium has done an environmental impact assessment (EIA) on the effect its planned mine would have on the environment around it.
In a chapter on the geohydrology of the area at and around Valencia, some words of caution are first sounded about the lack of knowledge about the underground water reservoir, in the report referred to as a "paleochannel aquifer", in that area: "The sustainable yield of this paleochannel aquifer is unknown, as no data or calculations with regard to this aquifer could be located.
Overall, very little is known regarding this aquifer and further investigations would be required to evaluate this aquifer's potential."
In the same chapter of the EIA a recommendation is made that this aquifer should be investigated further as a possible groundwater source.
In the application filed by the farm owners, an affidavit by a groundwater expert, geohydrologist Otto Jansen van Vuuren, is also included.
Van Vuuren explains that a "palaeo channel" is, simply put, "a buried stream channel".
He also states: "They are environmental treasures and should be treated with the utmost caution."
He adds that there is "virtually no empirical data available in Namibia in relation to the palaeo channel in the vicinity of the Valencia mine".
Without empirical data being available, he states, extracting water from this aquifer would be contrary to the Constitution's Article 95, which requires the State to adopt policies aimed at the maintenance of ecosystems, biological diversity and the utilisation of natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians.
"This principle is called, in environmental terms, the precautionary principle," according to Van Vuuren.
"Without the empirical data available no decision may or should be made."