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Zimbabwe’s ‘coal rush’ brings despondency as local communities bear the brunt of environmental degradation

May 07th, 2021
topic: Pollution
by: Burzil Dube
located in: Zimbabwe
tags: coal-mining, pollution, water pollution, Zimbabwe

The recent ‘coal rush’ by mining companies into Hwange, Zimbabwe has brought despair instead of high expectations from the local community, which accuses these entities of violating environmental regulations with impunity.

In most developing countries, foreign direct investment usually brings optimism among the general populace as it would be a positive sign of economic development and employment opportunities.

The scenario is rather different in the coal mining town of Hwange, situated in western Zimbabwe, where most of these new investors are already on the receiving end for environmental pollution and deforestation.

Pollution in Hwange, Zimbabwe's largest animal sanctuary

Most, if not all, of the country’s coal deposits are found within the Hwange district, which is part of the Matabeleland North province and is also home to Hwange National Park. This animal sanctuary is the largest in the country with various types of wild animals, which include lions, elephants, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopards - commonly known as the Big Five.

Over the past three years, close to ten companies, the majority of which are Chinese-owned, have been granted mining licenses by the Zimbabwean government to explore and extract coal. Other entities were also given the nod to venture into thermal power generation. 

The government was recently forced to revoke mining licenses that had been granted to Chinese firms to extract coal in the national park following an uproar from locals and animal rights activists. 

The coal rush has also brought them into a series of clashes with climate change campaigners who accuse these mining firms of polluting the environment with impunity. A point that was recently refuted by the Zimbabwean cabinet minister in charge of the environment.

Activists condemn disregard for human rights and the environment

The executive director of the Centre for Natural Resources and Governance (CNRG), Farai Maguwu, castigated the Zimbabwean government for lack of transparency when it comes to issuing special coal mining grants.

CNRG is a Zimbabwean civil society organisation that seeks to champion the cause of communities marginalised by the mining sector, especially in areas of environment, and promote good governance of natural resources.   

“The history of Chinese investment in Zimbabwe is clear for all to see - complete disregard for the rights of locals and their environment.  But to blame the Chinese alone is being very mean. The Chinese don't just do these things without approval from those in the upper echelons of power,” said Maguwu in a recent interview with FairPlanet.

He added that this was contrary to the government's vision of achieving green economy status by 2030.

However, Mangaliso Ndlovu, the Minister of Environment, Climate Change, Tourism and Hospitality Industry said that any organisation that contravenes laid-down environmental legislation is severely punished.

“Companies that flout environmental regulations have always been penalised and some are even forced to halt production until they conform to our standard operating procedures,” Ndlovu told FairPlanet.

The environment minister went on to state that his ministry, through the Environmental Management Agency, conducts environmental impact assessment programmes on a quarterly basis to try and ensure that there is full compliance by any particular organisation.

“We are fully aware of complaints that have been raised by the affected communities and most of them have been addressed and this also includes concerns related to pollution of the Deka River where thorough monitoring has always been taking place.

“Irresponsible mining is now a thing of the past as most companies are now following laid down environmentally friendly operational practices,” said Minister Ndlovu.  

Local communities pay the price

Ecological contamination by the mining firms within Hwange district has been a challenge since the early 1990s. Now, it is being exacerbated by new mining entrants. 

The effluent from these mines is discharged into the adjacent Deka River, which in turn feedsinto the Zambesi River.

There are fears that some of the impurities might gradually find their way into Africa’s fourth longest river - the Zambezi.

Communities living along the Deka River have in the past been complaining of loss of livestock due to contamination of their main water source. 

Fibion Mwembe, a villager who claimed to have lost five heads of cattle and thirteen goats, said water from this river was no longer safe for drinking or using for household chores.

“Boreholes that were drilled by a local coal mining company are no longer functional and everyone is left with no option but to get water from this (Deka) river whose contamination is well known,” Mwembe told FairPlanet. “With the coming on board of these new mining companies the situation is getting worse as they both discharge their effluent into the same river.” 

Investigations have revealed that forests in and around the mining areas continue to be decimated without any form of replenishment. In some mined-out areas the situation is dire as no rehabilitation has been implemented and deep gullies continue to be left unattended. 

Michael Montana, an environmental consultant based in Bulawayo, the country’s second capital city, said it is mandatory for all mining houses to ensure that they rehabilitated all their mined-out areas.

“It is rather mandatory under the country’s mining statutes for companies to embark on reclamation and rehabilitation programmes whenever opencast mining is exhausted,” said Montana. “All local tertiary mining institutions teach their students and managers on the importance [of] salvaging mined-out areas which is one of the major requirement to any potential investor.”

“Most of these new mining companies hardly follow environmental impact assessment programmes and the practice of making them pay fines is not deterrent enough,” he finally remarked. “Repeat offenders must be made to thoroughly clean the affected areas [in] its entirety as part of efforts of sending a strong message to any would-be mining investor.”

Image: Ian Withnall

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Burzil Dube
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Zimbabwe
A hippo stuck in the mud in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. The government recently had to revoke licenses granted to mining firms to extract coal in the national park following an uproar from locals and animal rights activists. 
© Zinyange Auntony
Researchers monitor the recovery of a baby elephant in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park in November 2012.
© Mrnita Bureau
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