Recently hundreds of dead fish floated to the surface of a stream which was the only water source for a rural community in Swaziland's drought-prone eastern region. A local sugar processing plant admitted to accidentally discharging toxic effluent into the stream, and brought in water tanks to supply the community until clean-up operations could be completed.
Communities like this one were at the mercy of polluters until the Swaziland Environmental Authority (SEA) was established five years ago.
An environmental watchdog group comprising 16 scientists from various fields, SEA is tasked with enforcing Swaziland's 2002 Environmental Management Act as well as various international environmental treaties to which Swaziland is a signatory.
“Our acting director is on site now seeing what happened and if mitigation efforts are really happening. We do not take anyone’s word on anything until we do our own investigations,” information officer Gcina Dladla told IRIN from SEA headquarters in the capital, Mbabane.
Although the authority is funded by government and falls under the Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Dladla explained that the agency is independent and polices government operations in the same way as it does the private sector's.
With Swaziland’s only environmental NGO largely dormant, SEA's small staff are all that stand in the way of this tiny kingdom's natural resources being exploited or mismanaged. However, concerns have been raised about the agency's ability to stand up to powerful private and government interests intent on putting profit and development before environmental concerns, especially after it gave the go-ahead for an iron ore reprocessing plant to be opened at the Ngwenya Iron Ore Mine, northwest of Mbabane.
Ngwenya ceased operations in the 1970s but due to its status as one of the oldest mines in the world, was declared a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO. Indian-owned mining company Salgaocar now intends to reprocess the low grade iron ore dumped at Ngwenya to extract its mineral content.
Critics of the venture, mainly consisting of tourism operators and businesses in the Ngwenya area, have pointed to the threat of heavy metals seeping into a dam which supplies drinking water to Mbabane, but according to Dladla, no iron ore processing will take place on site. Instead, the dumped rocks will be loaded onto trucks for transport to Mozambique.
"There are no chemicals being used," he said. "We will be monitoring the site as part of our inspection duties to make sure this remains the case.”
However, scepticism surrounding Salgaocar's operations at Ngwenya remains, particularly following allegations in the local media that the company gave iPads to cabinet ministers involved in the licensing decision and salvaged the 2011 Swaziland International Trade Fair when government failed to find sponsorship from local firms.
“No mining license has been issued in 30 years, and all of a sudden there is this big rush to get this operation started. How can you not be suspicious?” asked Almon Simelane, a tour guide from the region.
Dladla admitted that the authority had been under pressure to grant approval, but insisted that "we did a thorough job".
"We have to protect ourselves also, because the environmental authority is new and we have our reputation on the line. If something goes wrong tomorrow, the persons who put pressure on you for approvals come back and blame you,” he added.
The Swaziland Investment Promotion Authority (SIPA) told IRIN that the government’s push to open mining operations at Ngwenya was part of an effort to attract more foreign investment by demonstrating that business needs could be accommodated efficiently.
A local businessman and environmentalist who declined to be named pointed out that Swaziland's mining and manufacturing sectors were still relatively small, but that if government wanted to encourage more heavy industry in the country, it would need SEA to remain independent. "Swaziland is generally a pristine place still, but that can change, particularly with the population growth we are experiencing," he told IRIN. "It is to government’s benefit to see that SEA is working."
It is a huge task for a tiny agency whose resources have been further limited by Swaziland's current financial crisis. "We are seeing the effects," said Dladla. "If we have to go out and do monitoring and government says there is no gas for our cars then the trip has to be postponed to another day, but it is still made. If government says no hiring of new personnel... we work with what we have."
Ishmael Ndwandwe, an SEA environmental analyst, said the authority would continue to enforce environmental protocols in Swaziland "as long as we have our independence… We can stand up to the pressure because we know the environmental issues of this country,” he told IRIN.