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groundWork is a non-profit environmental justice service and developmental organization working primarily in Southern Africa in the areas of Climate & Energy Justice, Coal, Environmental Health, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals, and Waste. groundWork is the South African member of Health Care Without Harm and Friends of the Earth International.


New Fund Established to Support Community-Based Environmental and Climate Justice Organisations

A new grant-making body is being established to provide funding and support to community-based organisations working for environmental and climate justice in South Africa.

The new Environmental Justice Fund is a joint initiative of environmental justice groups groundWork, Earthlife Africa, the Centre for Environmental Rights, Womin, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, Benchmarks Foundation, Women on Farms and the Mining & Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa.

The Environmental Justice Fund is a new fund whose vision is that environmental justice prevails in South Africa, where all people enjoy an environment which is not harmful to their health and wellbeing, and the environment is protected for the benefit of present and future generations. The Fund acknowledges that supporting those most affected by environmental injustice to design and implement their own responses, is our best chance of reversing the tide of environmental destruction and building a better, sustainable, and just world. The Fund therefore supports the CBOs that drive these campaigns to be sustainable, accountable, agile, resilient, creative, and networked into the broader environmental justice movement in South Africa.

More details are available by clicking here.

The Fund invites interested and suitably qualified candidates to join this exciting initiative at its inception, by applying to be either a member of the Board or a member of the Grant Committee.

More details are available by clicking here.

The Cornubia chemical plant fire: Aftermath of the riots should not leave behind a toxic legacy

29 July 2021 - Open letter to the Board and Management of UPL, Fortress Real Estate Investment Trust, eThekwini Municipality and to national and provincial environmental authorities

In mid-July, South Africans had to fight for their constitutional democracy. As the dust settles, we are fighting for the openness of that democracy. The intent behind the 1996 Constitution was not only to establish democratic self-rule, but to ensure an ‘open and democratic’ society, based on the values of human dignity, equality, and freedom. Openness is non-negotiable for the people of South Africa to enjoy their constitutional right to an environment ‘not harmful to health or well-being’, and for our socio-economic rights.

A contaminated waterway But openness is being trampled on in the handling of the chemical fire that broke out on 12 July 2021 at a warehouse owned by Mumbai-based chemicals multinational United Phosphorous Limited (UPL) in Cornubia, north of Durban. The building, which is irreparably damaged, is owned by Fortress Real Estate Investment Trust.
Residents and affected stakeholders have been denied essential information about chemicals and related by-products stored at the warehouse. As a result of the fire, and attempts to hose it down, these have escaped into airways and waterways, contaminating water, air, and soil. Since either looters or economic saboteurs set the factory alight, community complaints have flooded in:

“We have a strong pungent smell and [are] inhaling this. My 2 [dogs] have vomited up white/grey substance for the past few days and my …[child] was very ill last night. We have all had sore throats and itchy eyes”.
“People have had scratchy throats and raw feeling eyes’, ‘in our household we had one person with asthma which was exacerbated with greatly restricted breathing on Thursday and Friday nights and nausea and vomiting”.
“We also had cats vomiting on Friday”.

Nearby residents have expressed concern that ‘this deeply concerns us as these fumes, we believe will lead to health problems further down the line.’

Read the full open letter here.

Climate litigation by civil society results in new guideline on climate change impact assessments

The draft guideline signals an important move towards considering climate change in environmental decision-making. However, government is urged to broaden and strengthen the scope of the guideline.

29 July 2021 - Civil society groups have welcomed a proposed new guideline for assessing climate impacts of new developments. The publication of this guideline is one of the outcomes of precedent-setting climate litigation by civil society groups challenging new climate damaging developments. The guideline is a step in the right direction to avoid further emissions in line with South Africa’s commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, loss of life due to climate change and also to prepare for the risks posed by climate change to new developments.

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), on behalf of environmental justice groups groundWork and Earthlife Africa, have submitted a written response to the draft National Guideline for the Consideration of Climate Change Implications in Applications for Environmental Authorisations, Atmospheric Licences and Waste Management Licences. The CER, groundWork and Earthlife form part of the Life After Coal Campaign.

The comments urge government to rely on science and the law to provide a firm benchmark against which greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions should be reduced.

Given the far-reaching nature of the climate crisis and its impacts, government is also urged to publish similar guidelines for the consideration of climate change impacts for a much broader array of licences and decision-making processes – particularly water use licences.

Read the full media release here.

Urgent (unofficial) Public Health Warning by Concerned Civil Society Organisations Following the UPL Pesticide Warehouse Fire in Durban

Dead fish after UPL Pesticide warehouse fire

21 July 2021 - The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and groundWork are issuing a public health warning to residents of Umhlanga, Umdloti, La Lucia, Durban North and surrounding areas in lieu of the potentially hazardous toxic chemicals that were released into the environment (air, water, soil) as a result of the UPL- pesticide warehouse in Cornubia, north of Durban burning down during the unrest last week. 

We are advising citizens to take urgent public health precautions to reduce their exposure until we have a comprehensive picture of this chemical incident. 

The following measures are the safest approaches to adopt as we await a full inventory of the chemicals that were in the warehouse fire:

  • Avoid swimming, surfing, or other recreational activity in the river or ocean nearby;
  • Avoid eating any fish or other sea life (shellfish etc) obtained from these waters;
  • As far as is possible, stay indoors as much as you can, with windows closed, particularly if your home is in the direction of the chemical plume. If you, your child, or elderly people with chronic chest and heart disease live in the area of the smoke, and it is at all possible to stay with relatives outside the area for the next few days, then it is advisable to do so; and
  • Consult your doctor or report to the emergency department at your hospital or clinic if you experience symptoms. 

If you were exposed to the smoke of the fire or contaminated water, and depending on your level of exposure, potential acute health effects might include:

  • Watery eyes and redness;
  • Scratchy throat and irritation of the nose;
  • Altered taste in the mouth, and possible excessive salivation; and
  • Gastro-intestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea (especially if people have ingested contaminated sea life);

These symptoms will generally be mild, and resolve once removed from exposure without treatment. However, if residents with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, chronic respiratory diseases, and heart problems experience an aggravation of their usual symptoms, such as a tight chest, shortness of breath, wheezing and are not responding to their usual medication, please seek health care immediately. Similarly seek health care if your symptoms continue to deteriorate.

We are also concerned about longer-term (chronic) effects. However, because of the failure by the industry and government to disclose the details of the pollutants, at this point in time, we are unable to state exactly what these symptoms are likely to be.

Should anyone experience any of these symptoms or symptoms suspected to be related - please urgently call this emergency number immediately on the EThekwini air pollution hotline 031 311 3555 or alternatively the emergency hotline 031 361 0000 to report on how you are affected by this pollution. Please insist on getting a reference number and forward the reference number by email to: bongani@sdceango.co.za or WhatsApp - 069 120 4970 for further investigation.

In the event of serious health effects please call the Poisons Information Helpline 086 155 5777

When we learn the results of the environmental tests which are currently being conducted we will adjust our advice to people on how to protect themselves.

For more information please contact:
Desmond D'Sa, South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) - 083 982 6939

Rico Euripidou, groundWork, Friends of the Earth - 083 519 3008
Rajen Naidoo, Professor and Head, Discipline of Occupational and Environmental Health, University of KwaZulu-Natal - 082 437 9333
Kamini Krishna, Property and Environmental Attorney, Umhlanga - 083 448 5855

Thoughts About Our Times in South Africa

14 July 2021 - groundWork has always been in solidarity with people at the frontline and fencelines of struggles against environmental injustice and corporate power.  Environmental injustice has been brought about by the power of capital – together with the political elite – seeking to force and use labour and nature to turn a profit.  They have done this by excluding people from democratic decision making, externalising the costs of their pollution onto people and our environments and taken control of public goods and enclosed these. They have done this for profit while also preventing those excluded from this profit seeking system to escape the clutches of capital.  This cannot be denied.

Evidence abounds: from the Guptas, Karpowership and the mines not wanted by community people yet forced upon them, to Sasol given leeway to pollute and harm people’s health because they need profit, and government forcing people to pay for basic services and water, knowing that they do not have the money to pay for it, while spending billions to finance business rescue bailouts for entities looted by them, their comrades, and cronies.

So given this context, how does environmental justice feature in the mayhem and looting in our country? Many commentators have spoken about why we are in this mess. From Abahlali baseMjodolo, South Africa’s leading social movement for people living in shacks, to ex-head of Stats SA, Mr Pali Leholhla on The Watchdog.  They are clear that over the last 27 years, government has ignored the people and the stats highlighting the challenges of the poor and the youth.  Our leaders have failed to deliver. According to New Frame, a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg, government and the elite also ignored the reality of the growing numbers of unemployed and hungry people. The Zuma incident was therefore the ‘spark to the tinder’, they argue.  But it is important to recognise that ‘the ANC failed to sort out its politics when the Zuma matter was for its members only to resolve,’ as Cyril Madlala reflects upon in The Daily Maverick, and the current crisis is therefore broader than Zuma and has been a long time in the coming.  

Read the full opinion piece here.

Case Against Activists Fighting Ikwezi Coal Mine in Newcastle Withdrawn

Activists protesting outside the Dannhauser Margistrate Court. Image: Jasmine Sarwoko

01 July 2021 -  The case against three young women activists in Dannhauser has been withdrawn. Sindi Kubheka, Buhle Kunene, and Zanele Kubheka appeared yesterday in the Dannhauser Magistrate’s Court. Magistrate Ngema provisionally withdrew charges of public violence against the three accused, pending further investigations.

The three were part of the eight activists that were arrested on the 12th of March 2021. They first appeared in court on the 15th March 2021. They were part of the community group protesting against the operations of Ikwezi Coal Mine in Dannhauser, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The initial two-day protest was sparked by the coal mining impacts in the community of Mbabane in Dannhauser, where Ikwezi operates a coal mine. The prosecution failed to present before the court visual CCV footage that was mentioned as evidence implicating the three on a charge of public violence directed at the police.

Read the full media release here.

For earlier news and our news archives click here, or here to access our collection of media items.