Women demand a breath of fresh air in the transition – energy security, access, and health in coal communities

South African coal mines in Dannhauser and natural resources companies are involved in the exploration of coal in a way that is conservative and sustainable in preserving coal for future generations. Picture Leon Lestrade Independent Newspapers.

South African coal mines in Dannhauser and natural resources companies are involved in the exploration of coal in a way that is conservative and sustainable in preserving coal for future generations. Picture Leon Lestrade Independent Newspapers.

Published Apr 17, 2024


By Matshidiso Lencoasa

As the country continues to breathe a sigh of relief at almost 10 days of no load shedding, one unfortunately has to burst the bubble and express the other reality we are urged to ignore in our hunger for energy and electricity – that reality is the health impacts of current electricity generation and the deliberate sidelining of the same in the current energy planning thinking as reflected in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP).

In its formal submissions on the IRP, the Presidential Climate Commission argues correctly that the consideration of air pollution cannot be ignored in any future energy planning.

The recommendation, informed by science, as should any climate and energy policy be, states that “the argument that you need to choose between energy availability and air quality is not valid” and “A path to continue with coal must take account of legal and constitutional requirements, and factor costs of meeting air quality emissions standards into modelling, otherwise it risks being overturned by the courts. While the IRP2023 acknowledges the role of air pollution on human health it avoids dealing with it. ”

Air pollution is a global public health emergency cited as the world’s leading environmental cause of illness and premature death.

Growing up in eMalahleni, asthma, bronchitis, and adverse respiratory health outcomes were the norm and continue to be so in the area dubbed the global number one hot spot for nitrous oxide emissions.

While there is a higher prevalence of respiratory conditions such as asthma among women owing to physiological differences, worsening reproductive health outcomes caused by air pollution, and the unequal gender norms that necessitate that women carry a disproportionate care work burden, the impact of air pollution on the health of women in coal-mining communities has been largely ignored.

Being a woman in a coal-mining town

Life is incredibly challenging for women in mining communities. Unemployment is rife – 66% of women in Mpumalanga are unemployed.

Coal mining is a source of employment for many, but the industry is male-dominated, with women representing only 12% of the country’s total mining labour force.

Much of the work available to women is often precarious and underpaid, mainly in the informal economy that supports the mines, like selling food to miners or providing care work.

The effects of the coal industry on the health of mineworkers are well documented, and platforms are finally being given to employees of mines to reflect on the Just Energy Transition – which we celebrate.

However, as women are primarily found in the informal and care economies, without gender-specific interventions, we are often at the periphery of these considerations and also need platforms to shape the transition. A Just Transition is gender-responsive.

Without a deliberate attempt to involve the intended beneficiaries in climate action that reflects our lived experiences, gender biases and inequalities will likely be entrenched.

Explicit consultation with women in our communities may enable the Just Energy Transition process to identify better and implement gender equality and women’s health outcomes.

Moreover, funding towards the transition must allocate sufficient resources to protect the constitutional right to access health-care services.

This funding includes redressing the devastation air pollution has had on our communities and building a resilient health system that can promote access to health care for all in a climate change context.

Establishing gender-sensitive benchmarks and indicators in the Just Transition policies and implementation is a powerful mechanism to advance gender-responsive allocation of the Just Energy Transition investment. Moreover, gender auditing and monitoring can be effective in centring the women of coal communities in this process.

However, these interventions are not solely for the public sector; robust legislation must be implemented that ensures that companies engaging and benefiting from the industry of our communities must do so in a manner that empowers the women rather than the status quo that exploits us and endangers our lives.

The Just Transition is an opportunity to build a just, fair, and inclusive South Africa.

The particular needs of women, girls and future generations must be foregrounded to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the Just Transition to build a just, fair, and inclusive South Africa.

Matshidiso Lencoasa is a Cornell University Public Policy Leadership- Mandela Washington Fellow 2023, Holds MA in International Development and Education, University of Sussex, and a Bachelor of Commerce from University of Witwatersrand This Article is part of The PCC Youth Climate Change Ambassador Writers Series.

Matshidiso Lencoasa.Image: Supplied.