Hwange’s festering environmental disaster

Source: Hwange’s festering environmental disaster | The Financial Gazette April 21, 2017

By Problem Masau

PHIBION Alimenda (74) coughs as thick smoke emanating from Hwange Thermal Power Station in the distance engulfs his Ingabula village.

Despite his terrible cough, he insists he is fine and believes the polluted air around him has nothing to do with his struggle for breath because he is now “used” to decades of the contaminated air.
His wife, Nyemukani, who had been drying her laundry outside, soon removed the clothes from the line as the smog thickened.

“I have to remove the clothes from the line because they end up turning grey because of the smoke. As you can see, all our clothes are dark in colour; we do not have the luxury of buying bright colours because of the smoke that periodically covers the area,” she said.
Over 60 000 villagers, residing west of ZESA Holdings’ Hwange Thermal Power Station, are at risk of contracting lung and respiratory diseases because of the pollution that has characterised the mining town for decades.

Lying windward of the thermal power station, the villages are in the direct path of air polluted by plumes of smokes emanating from the furnaces firing the boilers that provide steam which then powers the turbines that produce electricity.

An official with the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), Farai Maguwu, said residents were at risk of contracting lung infections because of the abundant air pollution.
“The people are at serious risk of contracting pulmonary (lung) diseases. Atmospheric air has been affected by the emissions from the Zimbabwe Power Company furnaces. The continuous emissions will in the long run contribute to acid rain, ozone depletion and global environmental problems that can potentially lead to reduced rainfall and an increase in temperatures,” he said.

“Trees and plants are dying because of the underground heat emanating from coal burial, while mining induced subsidence, without adequate prevention or repair measures, often results in the abrupt sinking of the ground surface, destroying the ecosystem, roads and killing both humans and animals,” added Maguwu, one of those few people who have been trying to break the silence on the environmental disaster that haunts the coal mining town.

Some few kilometres away lies Deka River that has always been revered by the locals, who live in one of the country’s most arid regions.

Both wild and domesticated animals as well as humans have from time immemorial quenched their thirst in the river.

So revered is the river that songs have been composed, poems have been recited and rituals have been conducted in praise of the river.
But the river’s potential for sustaining livelihoods is “ageing” as pollution takes its toll.
A nurse at Hwange’s St Patrick’s Clinic said cases of water-borne and skin diseases were prevalent in the area.

“Most children and even adults complain of stomach pains and skin diseases. Most people in the area have developed an ashen grey skin,” she said.
Chief Dingani Nelukoba said while Deka River has for centuries been their saviour, it is now under serious threat.

“Most of the rivers dry up, but this river has always braved the scorching sun and there are areas where it never runs dry. But there is no more fish in Deka River, while trees are vanishing every day. The mining companies are now many — and they are causing a lot of damage (to the river),” said the chief.
According to a research by CNRG, the water is being contaminated by mining activities that have been going on in the area for years.

“Open cast mining has affected ground water reserves through underground contamination. These contaminated water sources are posing health hazards to people as well as animals.

“Acid mine drainage produced by leaching of sulphide minerals present in the coal has had a direct impact on drinking water quality, aquatic life and corrosion of equipment and structures. The water will soon be too acidic and not suitable for domestic use. The erosion of stockpiles at Chilota mine has also led to the sedimentation at the nearby Deka River. Water contamination is also caused by coal dust settling on the surface water environment as well as from leaching and toxic drainage of particulates,” reads part of the CNRG report.

A wildlife conservationist in the Gwayi area, Watson Hugg, has raised concern over mining companies that are emitting hazardous substances with potential of contaminating water bodies.
He said companies should be stopped from operating in affected areas because people and animals were at risk.

The chairperson of Gwayi/Shangani Catchment area, Langton Masunda, said a lot needs to be done to avert an impending environmental disaster if the mining companies continue to operate without proper guidelines.
“An environmental disaster is looming in areas where these mining exploration firms are operating. We suspect these companies are operating without waste management plans. Most of the rivers in the area have been polluted,” he said.

Under Statutory Instrument 6 of 2007 companies and individuals face a fine or jail term or both for polluting the environment.
Hwange district boasts of high quality coal deposits for thermal, industrial and cooking coal.
Zimbabwe has an estimated 26 billion tonnes of coal reserves suitable for power generation and at the current rate of extraction of three million tonnes per year this translates to more than 8 000 years of mining.

This means Zimbabwe will be home to perpetual carbon emissions for centuries to come, emitting toxic gases that include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and mercury, which are hazardous to general life and the environment.