How uranium mine and living fossils co-exist
For the next two days of our Road Trip, WhyAfrica will explore the Erongo region of Namibia, known for its unique and extremely sensitive biodiversity, but also for its abundance of uranium.
By Leon Louw owner and editor of WhyAfrica
To find a balance between conserving the natural heritage of a country like Namibia and at the same time managing its mineral wealth in a responsible and sustainable manner, is a challenge.
However, conservation and mining can co-exist. There are case studies in Namibia that can serve as a blueprint for the mining industry across Africa in terms of Environment and Social Governance (ESG) standards, sustainability, and conservation.
For example, Swakop Uranium’s (SU) extensive study of one of the mystery plants of the world, the Welwitschia mirabilis, contributed significantly to what is known about this desert adapted species in Swakopmund and adjacent regions today.
From the outset of developing the mine, environmental and exploration teams started counting and mapping each plant, which after four years, added up to a surprising 52 214 plants – much more than what was previously thought.
Being one of the largest uranium mines in the world, SU’s Husab mine is located close to the Namib Naukluft National Park. There are areas to the immediate south and to the west of the mine where great specimens of this famous and remarkable desert plant occur.
Swakop Uranium’s four-year mapping plan
Swakop Uranium is a partnership between Namibia and the People’s Republic of China. Ten percent of the shares are held by the Namibian State owned Epangelo Mining Company and 90% by Taurus Minerals, jointly owned by China General Nuclear Power Group and China Africa Development Fund.
In 2011, SU was granted a license to develop the world-class Husab Uranium Mine. The discovery of the Husab deposit in February 2008 propelled Namibia into third place in terms of global uranium production. The mine produced the first drum of uranium oxide for the export market in December 2016.
As early as the exploration phase, the Husab environmental team started a four-year mapping exercise, during which each plant was given a unique number, georeferenced and photographed. Its relative state of health, relative size and its position in the landscape were also recorded.
What the statistics told us
According to the statistics 50% of the plants were bigger than 150cm across, and only 8% (or 4 176 plants) were smaller than 50cm in size. Very few seedlings were found. The Welwitschia plant has three colours of chlorophyll in its leaf. The greener the leaf, the healthier it is. The red and yellow chlorophyll are seen when the leaf becomes stressed by drought, tears or browsing, or at the old dying distal ends of the leaves.
During the census the colour of the plant was used to assess its relative health. Most of the population (88%) appeared to be in relatively average to good health, 7% were dead and 5% of the plants were in poor condition.
A map developed from the census data indicated that healthier plants (darker green) are found in the sandy channels that flow occasionally across the plains. The bigger Welwitschia plants are also strongly associated with the channels, which could mean that the size and health of the Welwitschia plant is possibly more closely related to access to water, rather than to age. Less healthy and smaller plants were found near the Welwitschia campsite which was situated on a hillslope with a small catchment. The mine continues monitoring and studying this remarkable plant, which is protected by law in Namibia as a near-endemic plant. It is also listed as a CITES II plant.
The unique living fossil
The Welwitschia mirabilis is found nowhere else in the world except in a long, narrow strip of Namib desert about 40km to 70 km inland of the coast, from the Kuiseb River to about 200 km into Angola.
The plant is fascinating as it has few characteristic desert plant survival adaptations, but apparently survives some 500 to 1500 years in an area where rainfall is only 30-100mm per annum.
One of the questions that Swakop Uranium’s environmental experts and scientists working with them attempted to answer was: how does the plant survive in such harsh conditions?
In the Husab area the annual rainfall is about 35mm per annum. Fog occurs 25-50 days per year and the annual evaporation rate is about 2500mm per annum. The climate is thus very dry.
Welwitschias are believed to transpire between 0,2 – 1,5 litres of water daily per square metre of leaf. Early morning fog or dew run-off from the leaves will provide some moisture in the upper centimetres of soil. However, recent isotope studies indicate that fresh water from rainfall and occasional floods seems to be the main source of the Welwitschias’ water. This is still being investigated.
Welwitschias are the only plants in the world known to have only two leaves which grow continuously from the basal meristem. The plant has separate male and female plants, told apart by the shape of their cones. Female cones are rounder and plumper, and the male cones are more branched and skinnier. Some plants look as if they have more than two leaves, but that is because the meristem and leaves get split, due to damage by, for example, flash floods, strong winds or browsing animals.
The WhyAfrica Southern Africa Overland Road Trip will take us through five countries in 44 days. During this time, we will drive more than 9700km on the good roads, the bad roads, dirt roads and tarred roads, to visit close to 30 projects in the mining, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, tourism, conservation, and development sectors.
This trip is made possible by:
Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in natural resources and African affairs.
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