Our Burning Planet


UN development agency slammed in open letter for support of ‘flawed’ Chinese industrial mega-project in Limpopo

UN development agency slammed in open letter for support of ‘flawed’ Chinese industrial mega-project in Limpopo
From left: Elephants en route to Zimbabwe over the Limpopo River. (Photo: Wally Schultz) | Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone CEO Lehlogonolo Masoga. (Photo: Gallo Images / City Press / Leon Sadiki) | Unsplash

Representatives of a group of civil society organisations are calling for the United Nations Development Programme to retract a Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone that could contribute up to 10% of South Africa’s total emissions from all sectors combined — and threaten water security from Limpopo to Zimbabwe.

Representatives of a group of civil society organisations have registered their discontent — by way of an open letter — with a decision by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) in Limpopo.

They slammed the MoU on the basis that the joint China-South Africa industrial mega-project — located in the Unesco Vhembe Biosphere Reserve — “violates every principle of sustainable development which the UNDP purports to serve”.

They added that it “lends this fundamentally flawed project undeserved credibility that is being used to attract investors and deflect criticism”.

Our Burning Planet’s Kevin Bloom has previously reported that the MMSEZ is a proposed China-funded 8,000ha metallurgical cluster in the baobab-filled Limpopo River Valley, which would be powered by its own 3,000MW coal-fired plant, draw water from drought- and famine-stricken Zimbabwe, and generally lay waste to the transnational ecosystems upon which millions of livelihoods depend.

Also read Kevin Bloom’s series on the SEZ: Part 1, Killing the Holy Ghost: Inside the R145bn plan that would destroy the Limpopo River, here and Part 2, How a R10.7bn ‘zero waste’ megaproject was buried by Limpopo’s Chinese deal here.

This most recent episode in the ongoing saga began in the middle of March 2022 after the UNDP announced they had signed an MoU with the MMSEZ.

In a statement released after the signing, the UNDP said the MoU was signed to “tackle South Africa’s triple challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment by providing support to MMSEZ, in technical support and expertise; capacity building and skills development; research and innovation; solutions for sustainable development; knowledge advancement; attracting foreign investment/investors and facilitating partnerships to address developmental needs”.

The partnership, the UNDP said, is anchored “by the ambition to accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 interlinked goals designed to be a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”.

They continued that the key focus areas of the partnership are to include “the identification and piloting of affordable and clean energy solutions, preventing deforestation and improving knowledge on environmental best practices”.

Dr Ayodele Odusola, Resident Representative for UNDP South Africa, said “this collaboration supports the sustainability of the Special Economic Zone for the prosperity of Musina-Makhado local communities. We aim to exercise our convening power to bring in all the key and relevant actors to help advance MMSEZ’s mandate through promoting shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, social advancement and innovation”.

MMSEZ CEO Lehlogonolo Masoga said the MoU “represents a significant milestone in creating a framework for collaboration and the development of an annual work plan that will put into effect activities and resources in our endeavours in clean energy, sustainable economic growth through skills development and enterprise development, amongst others”.

Responding to Odusola via an open letter published on Monday, the signatories condemn the MoU, which they contend — in contrast to Odusola’s claims — will worsen “poverty, inequality and unemployment in Limpopo by grossly aggravating water insecurity, climate change vulnerability, pollution and environmental degradation, the disease burden in an impoverished rural community, job losses in other collaterally damaged sectors of the economy and the national fiscal debt load”.

The open letter adds greater detail, listing the key reasons signatories believe the MMSEZ is a dangerous development and is in contradiction with UNDP programming principles.

First, in the context of the climate crisis, “the MMSEZ contravenes environmental and human rights standards and UNDP principles”, the authors write.

“The most authoritative body on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projects that limiting the global temperature increase to the critical 1.5°C threshold requires a reduction in CO2 emissions by around 45% of 2010 levels by 2030, and net-zero by 2050,” they explain.

They add that “UNDP’s own programming principle of ‘sustainability and resilience’ entails ‘…that supported programmes and projects enhance climate resiliency and avoid unwarranted increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, instead enhancing efficiency and reducing GHG intensity’.”

Despite these obligations and principles, “the MMSEZ directly contravenes this goal of climate resiliency through high GHG emissions, which will disallow South Africa from meeting its GHG mitigation obligations under the Paris Agreement, and by exacerbating water insecurity in a region that is already water insecure and expected to experience worsening water insecurity due to climate change,” the authors write.

They add that “the MMSEZ project is expected to generate approximately one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in direct and energy indirect emissions over the lifetime of the project” and “the project could contribute between 10-14% of South Africa’s carbon budget under the 2°C global reduction target, and as much as between 16-24% under a 1.5°C target”.

“The MMSEZ’s (crudely) estimated GHG emissions as per its Environmental Impact Assessment Report of 30-50 Megatons per annum (depending on whether the coal-fired power plant proceeds) is equivalent to about 10% of South Africa’s total emissions from all sectors combined at present, and will thus seriously jeopardise the country’s ability to meet its future carbon budget as per its Nationally Determined Contribution.”

Read in Daily Maverick: South Africa takes bolder steps to reduce emissions — but are they enough?

The authors of the open letter also contend that the project would threaten water security in the area and jeopardise local communities’ rights thereto.

“The MMSEZ covers a region in South Africa in which both ground and surface water is in short supply,” they write, explaining that it would involve “very high levels of unplanned additional water use because of its coal dependence”, with current plans to source the estimated 125Mm3 needed annually for the zone’s operation not having been assessed for “feasibility, legal compliance or environmental impact”.

This water sourcing plan poses a “threat to the human right of access to water in Limpopo, as well as southern Zimbabwe” — both of which are already water-scarce areas, they argue.

Read in Daily Maverick: How the Musina-Makhado SEZ will parch the people of Zimbabwe

Some of the signatories to the letter spoke out against the MoU directly.

Jacqueline Rukanda of Natural Justice said that “the MMSEZ project, from conception to completion, violates many rights of indigenous and local communities in Limpopo.

“Natural Justice works substantively with these communities and is aware of the struggles the communities have suffered relating to their land, their culture and heritage.

“It is unacceptable that the UNDP, a human rights body, may be connected to these abuses because of an MoU it signed with the state-owned company. Not only that, but it is also very disappointing that the complaints mechanism of the UNDP is unable to effectively stop the abuses.”

Dr Louis Snyman of Wits University’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies argued that “the UNDP is legitimising this dirty project and the consequences are real and damaging”.

Lauren Liebenberg, spokesperson for Living Limpopo — which campaigns to oppose the MMSEZ and promote a more sustainable development model for the Vhembe — said: “It is the lost opportunity that disappoints us most”, adding that “the UNDP’s support for government’s Operation Phakisa for the Biodiversity Economy would’ve turbo-charged rollout in the province of a genuinely viable, sustainable and transformative development plan.

“Instead, without prior consultation, it announces its backing for coal exploitation and coal-based heavy industry, which will forever destroy our rich, natural capital endowment in the Vhembe, along with its economic potential for its rural custodians.”

The UNDP responded to the open letter a few days later. Read their response below.



This story was updated post-publication to include the UNDP’s response to the open letter.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    The UN on the whole has become a farce. Do we need the UNDP in Africa? Where are the success stories? That money could be better spent on local NGO’s. This whole deal stinks – wonder what the quid pro quo was?

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