Teenager, Owen Bdlovu, has just been discharged from a district hospital after suffering from severe diarrhea. He fell sick after drinking contaminated water from an unprotected well in his village. As he makes his way towards the exit door, he is warned by Dr Most Hotshi, “Don’t forget to boil the water first to make it safe for drinking and remember to take six to eight glasses of clean water a day.” Safe drinking water is fundamental to healthy lives and prosperous communities. Every person needs 20 to 40 litres of freshwater per day for drinking, cooking, and sanitation needs alone. Yet some 1.1 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. As a result, many people become sick, some lives are shortened, and some die. Half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from water-borne diseases. According to the World Health Organisation, each year, an estimated four billion people get sick with diarrhea as a result of drinking unsafe water. More than two million of them die, mostly children under the age of five, most of them poor, and most of them living in the developing world. In developing countries, 80 percent of all waste is discharged untreated, often because of lack of regulations and resources. As populations and industry expand, they add to that equation new sources of pollution and increased demand for clean water. Human and environmental health suffers as a result, and future agricultural and drinking water supplies are put at risk.
The United Nations designated 22 March, the World Water Day, as a means of focusing attention on the importance of a clean water supply and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. However, despite strong opposition from tourism players and various stakeholders in Zimbabwe, Government authorities are likely to give Liberation Mining the green light to start coal-mining activities within the confines of the Gwayi-Shangani Dam in Matabeleland North. The decisions are more of greed and personal benefits for Zanu PF politicians and kingmakers. The dam is perceived as a solution to Bulawayo- Zimbabwe’s second largest city’s water supply problems and will also serve rural communities by providing irrigation water along its route to the city. This will make the project benefit communities in Matabeleland North and South, Bulawayo and Masvingo provinces. It also has trans-boundary implications in terms of water resources as it draws water that is supposed to flow into the Zambezi River, thus the project is being done in consultation with other Sadc countries that contribute runoff into the river. However, the construction of the Gwayi-Shangani Dam has been shrouded in controversy following intentions by Liberation Mining to pursue coal extraction close to the water source, with a number of fundis already citing water pollution from the resultant mining activities. Liberation Mining is one of the 20 companies that were granted licences by the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development last year to extract coal and explore coal bed methane gas.
A number of safari operators, surrounding communities, captains of industry and the Bulawayo City Council have rallied against the extraction of coal within the dam’s vicinity citing possible environmental degradation and likelihood of polluting water at the Gwayi-Shangani Dam. The extraction of coal within the confines of the water source is likely to culminate in water pollution through acidic mine drainage. Though water affected by acidic mine drainage can be treated, this comes at a cost and it would definitely strain the country and local authorities’ budgets bearing in mind that Zimbabwe’s economy is on the recovery path. If countries like South Africa, one of the emerging economies in the world, are struggling to contain acidic mine drainage in some of its mines, it would definitely be a mammoth task for Zimbabwe which is currently gathering the pieces of its economy. It is also on record that the country’s local authorities have been struggling to source water treatment chemicals and in most of the times they have to rely on the benevolence of the United Nations Children Fund. Recent reports from South Africa said urgent action was required in the Western basin of the Witwatersrand gold fields as acid mine water is already decanting to the surface and impacting on the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Acid mine drain is also affecting the Krugersdorp game reserve, which is an area where “there is no longer a functioning ecosystem”, with close to US$750 million needed to get things right. In the late 1990s Hwange Colliery Company Limited failed to control the acidic mine drainage from one of its disused mines and the pollutant flowed into a nearby community water source, the Deka River and killed its aquatic life, livestock and children grew big bellies after consuming the polluted water.
In 2009, the country experienced incessant rains and the coal-mining giant failed to contain the acidic water again and it found its way to the Deka River turning the water orange and killing aquatic life in the process. However, the company later managed to control the acidic water from flowing into the river but it came at a price as it parted with thousands of United States dollars on control measures and a fine from the Environmental Management Agency (EMA). Acid mine drainage, or acid rock drainage, refers to the outflow of acidic water from (usually abandoned) metal mines or coalmines. Other areas where the earth has been disturbed (for example construction sites, subdivisions, transportation corridors among others) may also contribute acid rock drainage to the environment. In many localities the liquid that drains from coal stocks, coal handling facilities, coal washeries, and even coal waste tips can be highly acidic, and in such cases it is treated as acid rock drainage. Acid rock drainage occurs naturally within some environments as part of the rock weathering process but is exacerbated by large-scale earth disturbances characteristic of mining and other large construction activities, usually within rocks containing an abundance of sulfide minerals. Remediation of acid drainage is difficult and expensive.
Many companies use hydrated lime, sodium hydroxide, sodium carbonate, or ammonia to treat acid mine water, with each chemical offering the advantage of neutralising acidity. Despite the possible challenges that can arise from mining near the dam, officials from the Ministries of Mines and Mining Development, Water Resources and Development and Natural Resources Management have said Liberation Mining is likely to be given a leeway to begin coal extraction upon proving its ability and measures to contain any form of pollution into the dam. Least they forget, it’s better to prevent than to cure. There is no doubt that water is important. Humans use it about every day and every living thing needs it to live. It has helped form the Earth as we know it, and it covers over 70 percent of the Earth. Even where there is land, much of it is covered in ice, which is obviously just solid water. The importance of water is clear to us in many ways, and we cannot overlook it. “What we understand from the mine is that they are prospecting and they are not yet mining. We are yet to be advised on the mining methods, which they will use and the environmental impact of their expected mining activities and how they are going to mitigate it (environmental hazard). So as far as we are concerned the construction of the dam is going on and any other development, which will come they (Liberation Mining) will give us full information and we will discus about it. “Anybody that does anything which causes pollution into public streams are required to pre-treat the water to sustainable levels before discharging it into a water body and the Environmental Management Agency regulates that and every mine is supposed to have an Environmental Monitory Policy (EMP) and they have to do Environment Impact Assessment (EIA),” said the acting water supplies manager for Gwayi Catchment area, Waddilove Mandiziva. “Industrial mining usually comes with pollution and we are saying every mine should pre-treat the water before it goes to water bodies just like what the Hwange Colliery Company Limited does,” he said.
Matabeleland North mining engineer Newton Zvavambiri said although Liberation Mining was still doing explorations and determining if its venture would be economically viable, it was most likely to be given the go ahead to extract coal upon proving their preparedness to curb pollution. “If they (Liberation Mining) opt to go the surface (opencast mining) way there is going to be less acid mine drainage which is going to come out of that operation but in an underground mining operation where you leave a lot of coal and have pillars supporting the roof you will have a lot of water accumulating thereby ending up forming acidic water that is where we normally have that problem (acidic mine drain) emanating from. “If they opt to go the surface way there is less acidic mine drain that is going to be produced. However, if there opt to go the underground way we anticipate there is going to be acidic mine drain to be produced as the time progresses. You have to put precautionary measures in place and pre-treat the water before you discharge it into a water body. Of course treating the water comes at an expense,” Eng Zvavambiri said. Although the Gwayi-Shangani Dam is under the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, the Bulawayo City Council, which would be a recipient of the water, has said it would not be in a position to afford treating the water in the event of acidic mine drainage. “It will be insincere for a mine to operate in that area because it will definitely cause environmental concern and what we want is to move in as soon as possible and stop whoever intends to start mining activities there,” said Councillor Paul Malaba during a recent full council meeting.
Chief Nelukoba Dingane of Mabale village in Hwange district where the Gwayi-Shangani Dam is located said though the coal-mining venture was going to benefit his subjects and the economy as a whole, it was of paramount importance to note that the mineral would be exhausted after sometime while water is a lifetime natural resource. “As much as we would like to have a mine in our area, one has to consider the uttermost resource, which is important to the people’s day-to-day livelihood and it is no doubt that water is very essential considering that it makes three quarters of our body and certain we don’t eat coal,” he said. EMA said mining activities by Liberation Mining would start upon the producing of an EIA. “For them to start any mining activity they should come up with an intensive and comprehensive EIA which involves all stakeholders. As it is we haven’t received the concerned document,” said Hwange district EMA officer, Mr Emmanuel Banda. Liberation Mine site manager, Mr Patrick Utete, said nothing would deter them “as long as we are working within the required scope anyone can say whatever they want”. “We are doing what is required by the special grant and for the record we are fully behind the construction of the dam and are working with the relevant authorities in that regard. The EMP will show that it mitigates whatever concerns that will be raised,” Mr Utete said.
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