Constitutional environmental rights are quite a new idea, but today many countries are including them, or signing international agreements to protect the environment. They want to make sure their citizens can live in safe, healthy conditions now, and in the future.

Section 24 of our Constitution says that everyone: “has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being”. It says our environment must be protected for us now and for future generations.

We do need economic and social development, such a new factories, roads, mines and housing and clean, piped water for everyone. But the Constitution says we must be careful to not destroy our environment and create long-term problems when trying to help everyone live a dignified life and reach their potential.

It says that the law must be used reasonably to stop the environment being damaged and to prevent and stop pollution such as land, air, water, and noise pollution. Conservation of natural resources must be promoted. New developments should be clean and sustainable and natural resources should be used in a sustainable way. ‘Sustainable’ means you do not use up the resource – you make sure more can grow or be created. So, for example, natural forest wood should only be cut if more trees are planted. New housing or shopping developments should be energy-efficient and cannot be built on precious wetlands or where there are endangered species of plants of animals. Factories must use technology to lessen toxic waste, and to clean up their waste products that they dump, pump into the air or into rivers and the sea.

The Acid Minds story this week shows how parts of the Constitution can support each other. Section24, on a safe environment, is linked to Section 27 which says that says everyone has, “the right to social security, the right to food and the right to water.” The government must make sure people in the village have safe water.

The story also shows what happens when there are no laws to protect the environment and people who depend on it. Much wealth and development of South Africa came from large-scale mining, which started in the 1860s in Kimberley, followed by the Witwatersrand gold rush from 1886. There were no environmental laws then. But today, many of the old, abandoned mines have caused the very serious problem of Acid Mine Drainage. Poisonous water from old mines is getting into the same water supply that people, animals and plants use. It’s causing sickness and death.

Now we have laws forcing mines to prevent or clean up the environmental problems. But, who must clean up mines that closed down a long time ago? We, the South African people, are paying for it. Our taxes are used to run our government, and the Department of Water Affairs has to spend massive sums of money controlling and cleaning up AMD.

As the story showed, it is sometimes up to ordinary people like Thabo and Amahle to identify environmental problems and use our Constitution and laws to prevent harmful developments, or to force the community, government or businesses to be responsible.

Are you (and the animals and plants around you) living in a clean, healthy environment? Or do you live with poisons, toxins, sewage, smoke from fires, smog, exhaust fumes, vermin, litter, or loud noise from other people, businesses, factories, farms or mines nearby? These harmful things can be found in the air, in the soil and old dumps, (including mine dumps) and all types of water sources: wetlands, dams, rivers, pools, the sea.

Remember that, like acid water slowly filling up the old mines, these things can take a long time to show up as lung diseases, or cancer for example. It’s important to be well-informed, and act now.