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The Netherlands mining interests in Africa: an interview with Dirk-Jan Koch

Investing in African Mining Indaba, an annual professional conference held in early February, is dedicated to the capitalisation and development of mining interests in Africa. Nancy Onyango from This is Africa sought out Dirk-Jan Koch, envoy for Natural Resources at the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for a chat about about the Netherlands’ stance on illicit financial flows, mining, flooding and water management in South Africa.

Nancy Onyango: Africa loses more to illicit financial flows than it gets through foreign aid and direct investments and is estimated to have lost $1.3 trillion over the last 50 years. South Africa is the Netherlands’ main trading partner in Africa (imports from and exports to South Africa in 2011 totalled € 1.26 billion and € 1.83 billion respectively, according to the NL Embassy South Africa website). What is the Dutch government’s stance on this?

Dirk-Jan Koch: The question you raise is a valid one. Especially in the extractive sector there are still a lot of illicit financial flows. We as a Dutch government are intensifying our efforts to ensure that those funds don’t flow through the Netherlands. So, we are currently changing the tax treaties we have with 23 developing countries, and we are now inserting clauses that will make it harder for companies to abuse the tax treaties.

In addition to that, we are a firm supporter of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. In this initiative countries and companies are sharing data on how much taxes they have received and how much taxes companies say they have given to the government. These amounts are then compared and verified by an independent auditor, and discussed with the public. We think that  the EITI could be relevant for South Africa, and are hoping that the South African government will follow other SADC countries, such as Mozambique and Zambia, in becoming more transparent on revenue flows in the mining sector.

What are the current and future mining water management challenges that the partnership seeks to address?

The Water and mining platform focuses on the full-cycle of mining: from mine planning, to mine maintenance, to post-mining, and also on acid mine drainage. We see that there are huge challenges in acid mine drainage in South Africa, and beyond. Our companies and research institutions like challenges and are eager to unleash their capacities to work together with their South African counterparts to develop solutions for these inherited problems. However, the companies also prefer to prevent rather than to cure, so they are even more keen to work in the development phase of mining.

 Dirk-Jan Koch. Photo: Judith Jockel
Dirk-Jan Koch. Photo: Judith Jockel

What are some of the opportunities for South Africans that the Dutch Water & Mining Platform presents? 

The advantage is that you don’t need to call individual companies, but you can call the Netherlands Water Partnership, and they will bring the Dutch expertise together that you need. And the platform will work together with you to co-create solutions.

In addition to pollution & contamination of water resources by mines, how will the the Dutch Water & Mining Platform address land reclamation/flooding issues now that there are 6000 abandoned mines in South Africa, and the need to reclaim these degraded lands to avoid open pits that get flooded during heavy rains and become community hazards? 

There are various new techniques that we would like to share with South Africans. One that I particularly like is the use of bacteria to clean up Acid Mine Drainage. Some funky professors in the Netherlands developed these bacteria, and it is a cost-effective and clean way to treat this wastewater.

Mining and reclamation plans always seem to neglect the native inhabitants of a certain area. How will community participation be achieved in the land reclamation initiative?

I am glad you mention this. I think we need a shift in the mind-sets of companies, but also of communities. It is easier said than done, but they need to start to see each other as allies, and not as adversaries. In the long run, they share the same interests, of a stable, healthy, prosperous region. All of them need to keep that long-term vision in mind and start to collaborate in that basis.

Photo: Hear Congo
Photo: Hear Congo

The Dutch solution to floods is to live with water and not to fight it. How does the Netherlands ensure close to 9 million people (almost half its population size) live below the sea level?

It is a combination of a co-operative attitude and technology. I think that we realised that we were in it together, and had to solve the issues together. No matter which religion, which background, it was important to unite and work together for our security. Our water boards (elected bodies focusing on water management) have shown the importance of inclusive governance: leaving nobody outside the system of protective dykes, also the most vulnerable. And we also needed breakthrough technologies to make it happen, and this combination of co-operation and technology has helped us.

Climate change has resulted in torrential downpours in various parts of the world, which has resulted in catastrophic flooding. The Netherlands, the best-protected delta in the world, is an attestation that we can combat flooding. What are some of the lessons learnt that you can share with African governments to curb flooding? 

I think one of the main lessons is that prevention is better than cure! So, step one, and we in The Netherlands also need to up our game to reduce fossil fuel related emissions. At the same time we need to prepare for those extreme weather events: increasing the height of the dykes, ensuring a continuous monitoring system of their strength, and involving the communities in doing this. They can be the first to signal weakening dykes and are an integral part of the early warning system.

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