A report on the Hwange All Stakeholders Conference

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Center for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) held an All-Stakeholders Conference in the coal-mining town of Hwange on 25 June 2018. The conference, which included a panel discussion with five aspiring parliamentary candidates for Hwange Central, followed a protracted protest by women in Hwange who pitched a tent at the Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) premises on the 29thof January 2018 demanding that the company pays their spouses their outstanding dues. Although the women called off the strike early May, CNRG established that deep-seated problems persist in Hwange.

While other major stakeholders such as HCCL decided to not attend the conference, despite assurances they would send representatives, two companies made it — Hwange Coal Gasification Company (a coking company) and Mota Angil (a construction company contracted by HCCL).

On being asked how much the company was polluting, the representative from Hwange Coal Gasification Company acknowledged that the company’s activities were considerably polluting the environment. Asked how the same company was giving back to the community of Hwange, the representative mentioned having helped fix the roof of one local school’s classroom, repairing window panes on the classroom of another school and at one point giving food to a local orphanage. The hordes of Hwange residents that attended the conference bemoaned how coal mining companies’ activities were costing them far much more than they were benefitting.  Coal companies operating in Hwange, that include Hwange Coal Gasification Company, HCCL, Zambezi Gasification, Chilota, South Mining, Makomo Resources, Liberation Mine, Mota Angil, Lukosi Coking and Hwange Power Company, do not appear to have any corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies that they follow through.

The situation in Hwange is a great paradox. While coal mining-related projects taking place in the area have for decades evidently greatly enriched those that are part of the value chain, the abundant resource has failed to benefit the community of Hwange. Community members that attended the CNRG All-Stakeholders Conference claimed many of the roads that were previously tarred were now in a state of serious disrepair owing to their heavy utilization by the companies’ heavy trucks, with the tar having long disappeared, even as locally operating companies such as Hwange Coal Gasification Company are in the business of producing large quantities of tar for sale.

The locals further decried the companies’ recruitment policies that they said favored mostly those from big cities such as the capital city Harare at the detriment of locals, with the bulk of the youths and able-bodied men and women in Hwange jobless.

But if the communities of Hwange knew the full implications of all the coal-mining-related activities taking place in their area, they would not only be angry, they would also be very worried.

The high level air pollution and the resultant health problems….

While coal’s abundance and ease of use makes it an attractive and inexpensive fuel resource, more so for developing nations such as Zimbabwe that are endeavoring to catch up on development; the mining, preparation, combustion, waste storage and transportation of coal are all activities that exact a high cost on the communities.

Coal contains sulfur and metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic, with dozens of substances such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and other known hazardous matter released into the atmosphere through coal combustion — a process associated with some seriously negative health effects that include respiratory ailments, black lung disease from continuous inhalation of coal dust, chronic bronchitis and asthma attacks, reduction in life expectancy, congestive heart failure and loss of IQ as a result of nervous system damage from mercury.

Coal ash that remains after the coal has been burned is also a hazardous waste that contains boron (proven to cause nose, eye, and throat irritation and if released in excess, can cause damage to testes, liver, intestines, kidney and the brain); chromium (known to cause stomach ulcers, stomach and lung cancers, and anemia); selenium (feared to cause paralysis and impaired vision).

While it is difficult to directly link the health problems facing the people of Hwange with the above-mentioned conditions mostly owing to many locals remaining unable to seek proper medical facilities for accurate diagnosis, ill-health has become synonymous with the coal-mining area. During the All-Stakeholders Conference, one could hear suppressed deep coughs, which according to the residents, have become accepted as a normal part of life in Hwange.

Villagers that live close to coal-burning activities are especially at risk, such as those from the smog-filled Ingabula Village located near ZESA Holdings’ Hwange Thermal Power Station, the country’s biggest coal-fired power plant. A thick smog every day fills the air that over 60 000 of the villagers that reside in the area have for years been breathing.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an average year a typical coal plant (500 megawatts) generates 10 000 tonnes of sulfur oxide that causes acid rain and forms small airborne particles that can cause lung damage, heart disease and other illnesses. Currently, the Hwange Thermal Power Station reportedly has an installed capacity of 920 megawatts.

But the people of Hwange are not completely oblivious to the health dangers posed to them by coal mining companies. Teresa Malunga — an elderly woman who resides in Madumabisa Village, where Hwange Colliery Company’s coke plant and South Mining (a Chinese coking company) are operating from — bemoaned the deteriorating health of the people of Hwange, citing respiratory ailments as a major concern.

“Many people in the communities of Hwange are suffering from asthma and are having breathing problems. But many are too poor to afford seeing a doctor,” said Malunga.

The alarming environmental degradation & climate change threat…..

While Zimbabwe has apparently embraced the ‘polluters pays’ principle that dictates that those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment, coal mining companies in Hwange appear to be polluting with impunity.

The community of Hwange is crying foul over the high level pollution of Deka River and its tributaries – which were the community’s major sources of water. Residents alleged the water sources became contaminated as a result of the coal washing process, leading to deaths of livestock that drank from them. Meanwhile, as desperate villagers continue to use the water, a nurse at Hwange’s St Patrick’s Clinic confirmed that cases of water-borne and skin diseases had become prevalent in the area. Additionally, fish have been dying at a large scale, making fishing as an economic activity no longer viable. According to studies, less than a quarter of a teaspoon of mercury deposited in a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat.

After mining, coal is crushed and washed to remove the surrounding soil and rock, resulting in large quantities of a liquid called coal sludge being produced, which some coal mining companies have been accused of disposing in dams, rivers and streams. This waste water normally contains large amounts of mercury, cadmium, nickel, selenium, arsenic and beryllium.  But even while others may dispose it in landfills, studies have shown that the liners of the landfill over time degrade and crack, meaning the toxins are eventually released into the environment.  Meanwhile, coal-powered power plants such as the Hwange Thermal Power Station are major known water polluters and are known to dump more toxins into rivers and dams than any other industry, with aging coal plants being particularly linked with major pollution.

In addition to the polluted water, the ecosystem of Hwange has received a major beating, with trees and plants fast dying in Hwange as a result of the underground coal fires, while the sinking of the ground has become a common occurrence.

The coal dust that now engulfs Hwange from years of coal mining is also a major cause for concern because, apart from polluting the air, the dust can also contaminate the water bodies and adversely affect not only humans, but also the vast wildlife in the area. Some years ago a wildlife conservationist in the Gwayi area, Watson Hugg raised concern, alleging mining companies were emitting hazardous substances with the potential to contaminate water bodies from which wildlife drank.

More worryingly, the ongoing coal mining activities in Hwange look set to not only have a negative bearing on the local community, but the entire country and region as they are likely to exacerbate the climate change threat. According to studies, in an average year a 500 megawatt power plant generates 3, 7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (equivalent to chopping down 161 million trees). Coal is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide— the principal human cause of global warming and climate change. Thus, with the continued burning of vast amounts of coal in the same manner that does not incorporate clean coal solutions such as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) or carbon sequestration, CNRG fears an environmental disaster looms.

The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) came under fire from the community of Hwange at the All-Stakeholders Conference, with the agency accused of showing leniency to polluting mining companies. The community poured scorn at the $5000 EMA charged polluting companies, saying the amount was not deterrent enough and companies continued to find it easier and cheaper to go ahead and pollute than stop production or resort to clean coal solutions. Additionally, the community of Hwange demanded to know from the EMA representatives where the money paid by the polluting companies was being channeled to. Being the ones bearing the brunt of the pollution, the community believe it would be fair for the money to be channeled towards assisting the community in mitigating climate change.

Meanwhile, Hwange district continues to boast of high quality coal deposits for thermal, industrial and cooking coal, with the country believed to have over 26 billion tonnes of coal reserves suitable for power generation that the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa is determined to make full use of. Recently, his government entered an agreement with a Chinese company, Sinohydro, where the latter released funding for the expansion of the Hwange power station to reportedly add 600 megawatts of electricity into the national grid when complete.

That means a strong campaign is required to pressurize government to turn to clean energy and start slowing down on coal mining and thermal power generation.

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