By Oscar Nkala
It may have been 19th century adventurism that led American Scout Frederick Rusell Burnham to discover the Hwange coal fields of modern-day Zimbabwe in 1895.
Coal mining around Hwange began in 1902, and it has never stopped.
Until 2010, the partly State-owned Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) enjoyed a virtual monopoly, supplying coal for power generation, business and domestic consumption.
A century later, modern exploration has found larger coal deposits inside Hwange National Park (HNP), sparking a scramble for mining licences in the game reserve.
Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s major tourist drawcard, which hosts rare plant and wildlife species.
Hwange is home to over 100 mammalian and 400 bird species.
These include elephant, rhino, lion, giraffe buffalo, leopard, antelope, impala, kudu and eland, among others.
The game reserve and HCCL co-existed while pursuing two different land-uses until 2009 when the coal miner announced plans to boost production by expanding into six new concessions deep inside the game reserve.
However, the HCCL expansion drive worries tourism operators who fear the expansion of coal mining will scar the land and destroy wildlife habitats.
They are concerned that coal mining will pollute the air, environment and water resources while tearing up pristine forests to make way for roads, mines and worker housing.
Despite their concerns, the scramble for coal mining concessions has not slowed down.
According to the Mines and Mining Development ministry, 85 coal prospecting licences were received between 2010 and 2019.
To date, 28 prospecting and mining licences have been granted in wildlife areas in Hwange, Lower Dete and the Gwayi Conservancy.
In addition to HCCL, Makomo Resources, Zambezi Coal and Gas, South China Mining, KW Blasting, Western Coal, China Africa Sunlight Energy and Chilota Colliery have also been granted mining licences.
Zimbabwe Zinghxon Coking Company, Appex Mining, Glotech Engineering, Clidder Mining, Discovery Investments, Coal Brick and Mackrock and Sable Mining also hold mining licences in Hwange National Park, Gwayi and Lower Dete Valley game reserves.
However, only Makomo Resources, Zambezi Coal and Gas, Galpex as well as HCCL have started mining the new concessions. The rest are at various stages of exploration and development.
Capitalising on new coal concessions inside the park, HCCL aims to boost production from a monthly average of
75 000 tonnes per month in 2019 to
110 000 per month in 2020.
Makomo Resources plans to raise monthly output from 85 000 tonnes in 2019 to 120 000 tonnes per month this year.
Zambezi Gas and Coal is aiming to double output to 60 000 tonnes monthly in 2020.
All four are active members of the Coal Producers Association (CPA), which is angling to meet a production target of 20 million tonnes in 2020, up from 10 million tonnes in 2019.
However, tour operators fear such growth targets will be achieved at their expense.
In terms of Zimbabwean law, mining is a strategic sector which takes precedence over any other land use.
The law also states that no exploration or mining activities can commence without Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) certification.
Six new coal mining licences have been granted in Gwayi.
The biggest is Liberation Mining Private Limited, located on Special Grant 4 977 in Bulawayo mining district covering Hankano, Gwayi, Mazwa and Gundwane farms.
Its four mines of the Lubimbi Coal Fields hold a combined underground resource estimated at 22 billion tonnes. Gwayi-Dete-Hwange Safari Operators Association chairman Langton Masunda said coal mining will kill the animals, the local communities and the tourism industry.
“Photographic safari operations inside Hwange have dropped since 2010 when Makomo [Resources] started mining up the Sinamatella area,” Masunda said.
“The introduction of blasting, heavy equipment movements and human settlements caused noise and air pollution which forced out the elephants, buffaloes and plains game that previously lived there.
“That migration permanently upset the natural distribution of wildlife in Hwange, causing massive losses to safari operators.
“Tourists who used to come to Sinamatella for the wildlife experience do not visit anymore because it is now an industrialised excursion instead of the undisturbed nature they pay to see.”
Besides killing the tourism sector, Masunda believes coal mining in Hwange National Park poses new public health hazards arising from the contamination of rivers and underground water resources and chemicalised air pollution.
“Wherever it occurs, coal is a major pollutant,” he added. “It contains benzene, tar, ammonia and several other chemicals which poison the water and environment enough to make it unhealthy for both people and wildlife in the vicinity.
“Polluted water kills wildlife and people. It affects wildlife breeding patterns and causes forced migrations.
“Any outward displacement of animals from natural habitats worsens the human-animal conflict as the animals move to human settlements.”
Tourism operators want the government to weigh the benefits of mining against the tour industry in order to determine the most sustainable land-use for mineral-endowed wildlife areas like Hwange National Park.
“Coal takes up to two million years to form, but runs out within a short time, often leaving ravaged and poisoned environments behind,” Masunda added.
“It’s non-renewable, but wildlife is.
“Where coal mining destroys the environment, wildlife tourism keeps the environment natural.
“So our position is ‘no’ to mining or any transformative activity in wildlife areas.”
Apart from mining, the Gwayi Conservancy and parts of southern Hwange National Park will be submerged upon the completion of the Gwayi-Shangani dam 37km downstream of the conservancy.
The dam is a critical component of the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project, a century-old government project to channel water from the Zambezi River to Bulawayo, about 330km to the south.
When complete, the dam will have a water throwback zone of 75km, which will submerge the entire Gwayi and Lower Dete Valley wildlife areas.
“We are only 37km from the dam wall. That means all animals in Gwayi and most of southern Hwange National Park will drown with us. So will all six new coal mines within a 40km radius of the Gwayi-Shangani dam wall,” Masunda said.
“When the dam fills up, the mines will be drowned and release chemical pollutants into the water, rendering it unusable.
“So, the dam project must stop because it will kill local livelihoods, the wildlife, the environment and the tourism industry.”
According to a research paper published by the Minerals and Sustainable Development Project of the University of Zimbabwe and the Southern Africa Geology Department in August 2001, environmental impacts of mining include changes in topography, surface drainage and long-term soil compaction.
Mining also induces ground subsidence, changes in vegetation cover, surface water pollution, increased salt content, acidity and reduced alternative land-use capacity.
“The surface effects of underground mining are mostly associated with localised subsidence, sinkholes, rock bursts and earth tremors, while roof collapse of shallow underground room and pillar coal mine seams can promote spontaneous combustion in the residual coal.
“Mining operations have several adverse hydro-geological impacts including changes to local (and sometimes regional) groundwater dynamics in terms of both quality and quantity of water as well as its direction of flow,” reads the paper entitled An Overview of The Impact Of Mining and Mineral Processing On Water Resources and Water Quality in The Zambezi, Limpopo and Olifants Catchments in Southern Africa.
Most changes in groundwater quality are linked to de-watering when mines extract large volumes of underground water to improve mine safety.
“The environmental effects of de-watering include lowering water tables, formation of sinkholes and localised [ground] subsidence,” the paper says.
“More hydrological impacts result from improper placing of open-cast and waste disposal facilities such as tailings dams and slurry pounds on the surface or in open pits.
“This gives rise to seepage, which decreases water quality and changes the rate and direction of groundwater movement.
“In general, mining processes release environmental pollutants that were previously immobile.
“Potential sources of acid mine drainage include surface run-off from open-cast mines, seepage from leach ponds, run-off from residue dumps and drainage from underground mines.
“Water quality changes are the most significant consequence of mining activities,” the paper stated.
Further, the research found that constructing and erecting mining infrastructure caused large-scale alteration of landscapes, landscape fragmentation and the dispersal of biological habitats and wildlife populations and ecosystems.
Other impacts include the release of wind-borne dust, gases, radioactive and metallic vapours which are primarily related to health and ecosystems damage.
In a July 2016 report titled Environmental Impact Assessment Report for Hwange Coal Mining: Special Focus on Hwange Colliery Company, the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) said mining had ravaged the environment while polluting the air and aquatic systems in Hwange.
“Soil and land degradation from mining has disrupted the aesthetic elements of the landscape, resulting in unnatural and discontinuous configurations, while underground smouldering of coal often produces fires which have detrimental long-lasting economic, social and ecological impacts,” CNRG said.
Hwange residents reported a high frequency of ground sink or collapse incidents, which damaged critical infrastructure and buildings.
Hydric contamination and chemical water pollutants were also found to be seeping into the Deka river ecosystem from HCCL mines.
A tributary of the Zambezi, the Deka supplies water to thousands of people and livestock downstream from the coal mines.
“A swamp has formed in the mining area as a result of the disruption of soil formations by mining.
“This has resulted in Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) of the Deka, posing severe health hazards for humans and animals.
“Viral food poisoning is a common concern as all crops grown along the river are contaminated with pollutants,” reads part of the CNRG report .
The study also found that women in Hwange were collecting the acidic coal dust and slurry from the river for sale as a sexual stimulant to women elsewhere in Zimbabwe.
This posed the danger of new coal-derived diseases erupting among women.
Due to exposure to coal dust, a high incidence of pneumoconiosis and black lung disease has been recorded among Hwange miners and their relatives.
The people are also at the risk of contracting cardiopulmonary diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hyper-tension, lung and kidney disorders.
“Toxic levels of arsenic, flourine, mercury and selenium emitted by coal fires in Hwange spread through the waterways and enter the air and food chains of the people, with harmful general and mental health consequences,” CNRG report added.
In its Fifth National Biodiversity Report submitted to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2018, the Zimbabwean government said coal mining had fragmented wildlife habitats around Hwange.
“Mineral exploration in protected areas such as Hwange and Mana Pools has led to land use conflicts with conservancies. For example, conservancy owners are lobbying government to address the harmful effects of mining on wildlife movements and breeding in the Gwayi Valley Conservancy.
“Other concerns relate to potential biodiversity loss caused by permanent transformation of landscapes due to open-cast mining.
“Open-cast mining in the Gwayi and Shangani rivers system has triggered fears of pollution and siltation of waterways, increased and easier access for poachers and expanding encroachment of human populations into undisturbed habitats,” the report stated.