“Environmental Group Says Marine Phosphate Mining Cannot Be Sustained By Namibia”
The Namibian marine environment cannot accommodate a viable fishing industry and the disruptive exercise of marine
phosphate mining, says environmental lobby group Swakopmund Matters.
“Either one or the other can thrive – not both,” says the group, which was formed in 2011 to raise awareness of the
potential damage that marine phosphate mining can cause to the Namibian environment, particularly the marine ecosystem
and rich fishing resources.
Currently, there are four marine phosphate-mining projects in various phases of development planned for the Namibian
coastal region at four different points in the Atlantic Ocean. These are being carried out by Namibian and international
“The Namibian fishing industry represents the sustainable use of a renewable resource, whereas seabed mining has a
destructive impact on the marine ecosystem. It represents finite exploitation of a non-renewable resource at the expense
of the fishing resources, which are of cardinal importance to the Namibian economy,” says Swakopmund Matters.
The Namibian fishing industry earns about $580-million in foreign earnings through export and directly employs more than
13 000 people offshore and 8 800 on shore, says Swakopmund Matters.
“This kind of marine phosphate mining has never been undertaken anywhere else in the world. It is highly controversial,
as the Namibian coast and the Benguela region of the ocean are the most productive and biologically beneficial areas for
the country,” the group notes.
Swakopmund Matters notes that Article 95(1) of Namibia’s supreme law proclaims: “The State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare
of the people by adopting, inter alia, policies aimed at the. . . maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological
processes and biological diversity of Namibia and [use] of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the
benefit of all Namibians, both present and future. . . ”
“Over the years, the marine environment has been subjected to familiar threats, such as pollution, but the marine mining
of phosphates is far more serious and poses a new challenge,” says the group.
It notes that many marine biologists and other experts are aware of the serious consequences of this kind of mining
activity and have voiced their concerns.
“Marine phosphate mining has never been done anywhere else in the world and Namibian coastal waters are now facing the
threat of being the testing ground. These concerns have not yet been adequately considered in Namibia,” says
environmental group Earth Organisation Namibia director Marcia Stanton.
Swakopmund Matters says that many environmental impacts stemming from marine phosphate mining have to be assessed. These
include concentrations of hydrogen sulphide in sediment and the effect of these sulphides when released, such as low
oxygen levels in the water. Most notable perhaps is the effect of possible hydrogen sulphide release into the benthic
layer of the ocean, as oxygen levels are critical in these oxygen minimum zones, which include the central Benguela
Further assessments that need to be made include the number of dissolved nutrient inputs from sediment; trace metals and
other potential noxious compounds that could be released into the water, as these could have serious effects on the
marketing of fish products, such as hake, monk and shellfish; information on Thio-bacteria; and changes in the Redfield
ratio in surface waters.
More information on spawning activities in the mining area also needs to be made available.
Former head of the Marine Chemistry & Biology Division of the Stellenbosch-based National Research Foundation for Oceanology Professor Michael Orren, notes
that offshore mining of phosphate-rich sediments poses environmental challenges, as it releases toxic matter, such as
hydrogen sulphide and reduced phosphorous compounds, such as phosphine, a killer gas used in warfare.
“The offshore currents of Namibia’s coast are weak, with slow reversing and dispersion, so anything put into the sea
tends to stay there,” he notes.
On World Ocean Day last year, Namibian Hake Fishing Industry Association chairperson Matti Amukwa voiced his concerns to
an audience in Swakopmund.
“Many of the fish we catch are high-end earners such as hake, monkfish, rock lobster and deep-sea crab. These are mostly
exported to countries with higher incomes; however, Namibian horse mackerel is also contributing to food security in
Africa. A fishing concessionaire with a 15 000 t quota is producing 135-million tons a year of fish. This equates to
feeding 370 000 people in Africa every day.
“Namibia is ranked in the top ten countries in the world for its ability to effectively manage its fishery resources,
but the international fishing industry is becoming increasingly competitive. Overseas buyers are becoming more demanding
– the fish they buy must have an eco-label, showing that the fishery is responsibly managed,” he said.
He noted that the United Nations Food and Agriculture organisation had developed rigorous international guidelines for
eco-labelling, which require fisheries to reduce their catch levels if fish stock was declining.
“Namibia is currently in a good position to benefit from eco-labelling, and the hake industry, which employs 8 950
people, is seriously considering it. This will enable us to move into new markets, which are currently unavailable to
us. Consequently, we cannot afford to have marine phosphate mining negatively disrupting the environment, as this will
reduce our fish-stock populations,” he added.
Former head of environmental group the World Wildlife Fund South Africa Dr Allan Heydorn has also expressed concerns
around marine phosphate mining, says Swakopmund Matters.
He notes that the likelihood of marine phosphate mining being deleterious to Namibia’s fishing industry was substantial
and the environmental impacts would be serious, particularly in an area characterised by the powerful Benguela current
“The principle of seabed mining needs to be subjected to a detailed environmental-impact assessment, with public
participation. Infrastructure requirements, such as harbour facilities, for offloading large volumes of sediments, need
to be fully disclosed,” he says.
In October 2012, Namibia received an award at the eleventh United Nations Biodiveristy Summit, held in Hyderabad, India,
for its landmark Marine Resources Act of 2000, which provides the framework for a sustainable fishing industry.
“By accepting the award, Namibia is reassuring the world that it is capable of looking after and protecting its marine
assets with great responsibility,” says Swakopmund Matters.
The environmental lobby group notes that, given the uncertainty associated with this kind of phosphate mining, it is not
possible to predict the impacts of any of these projects with complete accuracy.
“All the uncertainties arise because of a lack of knowledge and experience about the technologies and processes
underpinning the mining system, the biodiversity and the ecosystem of the deep ocean. What is certain is that impacts
will be associated with each step of the mining process.
“The geographic footprint of each of these seabed mining operations is likely to be significant. The interactions among
currents, the weather and oceanic events will mean that the spread of pollution and impacts cannot be contained or
readily predicted,” says Swakopmund Matters, noting that a comprehensive policy is needed for this activity.