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Govt turns blind eye to Deka River pollution

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THE sun beats mercilessly on the open fields of Chachachunda in Hwange district, Matabeleland North province, as the cattle scampering for grazing pasture feed on brown grass.

NYASHA CHINGONO

This is the safest place for grazing for the cattle which have suffered from drinking polluted water and feeding on pastures by the banks of Deka River, located several kilometres from Chachachunda.

 Reckless coal-mining activities around the Hwange area have led to untenable damage to the environment and serious pollution of major water sources. Companies accused of polluting the river include the Zimbabwe Power Company, Galpex and Hwange Colliery Company.

 There is acid mine drainage (AMD) from the colliery’s abandoned underground activities. Herdsmen have been battling to keep the remaining cattle away from the infested river, after dozens of cattle died from a mysterious disease while female cows have suffered stillbirths.

Among the herdsmen is Mathias Phiri (68), who is reeling from loss of livestock due to polluted water.

 Phiri had 63 cattle, but is now left with only three.

“It is very tough to lose livestock you worked hard for. I had 63 cattle and I am now left with three cattle,” he said.

He said the plague had forced him to sell some of his livestock to avoid losses. Phiri was forced to sell his cattle for half the price.

“This has forced me to sell cattle whenever I see that the cattle are now weak . If you do not sell, you will suffer a heavy loss,” he said.

The livestock farmer said the last five months of the year were more lethal for the cattle.

“Between August and December we lose a lot of cattle, some just drop dead. What pains me the most is that we cannot even sell our cattle anymore. Everyone now knows that our water is bad. Instead of selling a beast for US$500, you are forced to sell it at US$250,” he said.

 He tells a heartbreaking story of how dozens of his cattle would drop dead days after drinking the contaminated water from Deka River, a tributary of the Zambezi River.

Livestock farmers in Shashachunda, Mashala, Makwa, Zwabo, Mwemba and Simangani have been counting their losses since several coal-mining companies invaded the local area, dumping refuse into the river.

Deka River is a source of livelihood for villagers and livestock farmers have been hit the most. An investigation into mining activities around the Deka area shows that coal-mining companies dump debris, which include deadly chemicals, upstream.

As Phiri recounts his ordeal, Decent Malaba Ncube, another cattle farmer, listens carefully. From a herd of 52 cattle, Malaba Ncube is left with 12. He has lost goats too.

 “I have lost 12 cattle. Every year I lose cattle, I have lost a lot of goats too. Our cattle cannot give birth anymore,” he lamented.

Relying on Deka River for survival in a village where employment prospects are elusive, Malaba Ncube said villagers in Shashandunda and other surrounding villages were suffering.

 “We do not have jobs here, so we relied on fishing to survive. People relied on Deka for a living. They would fish and sell in Hwange and take children to school. But right now we have a challenge. We had a lot of cattle but they died because of this water,” he said.

Once known for its fresh and clean ecology teeming with bream and catfish, among other aquatic species, Deka’s water has turned green over the years, affecting the flora and fauna and harming the lives of villagers.

The deafening silence around Deka River shows that most living organisms have either died or relocated from the infested waters.

Thick-layered algae forming on top of the water flows downstream where villagers engage in several activities like fishing, bathing, washing clothes and watering their gardens.

The lifeless river, which feeds into the Zambezi up north, has become a pale shadow of its former self as chemicals and pollution suck its very life.

“The mining activities have really affected us. When the cattle drink water from the river, they suffer stillbirth. Deka has really affected our livelihoods. We used to have clean water to bathe, drink and for our livestock, but we now have a serious problem here,” Chachandunda village head Anastacia Tshuma said.

She recounted how life has changed since the river was polluted.

“We just started seeing water changing colour. After that we saw fish dying, they rot and we have nothing to do. Our cattle keep on going to Deka because of Matete lawn. Life has never been the same since our river polluted,” she said.

Peter Dube of Mashala area said apart from the death of cattle, the pollution has killed fish. Shashachunda like other areas is a mixed subsistence economy which was traditionally reliant on fishing. With fish dying in large numbers, the Shashachunda community is in dire straits.

“We do not have fishing anymore. This was our livelihood. Fish are dying, it’s now a disaster. We have a big challenge,” Dube said.

He lamented that the people of Shashachunda were never consulted when mining companies started activities upstream.

“We were never consulted, to know who has come to mine in our land. We needed to know why they were here. People are coming, mine and pollute, and start their blame game,” “We do not know where to go. The community was never engaged. This is beyond our control. We engage our village heads and councillors, but now this is beyond our control,” he lamented.

With pollution continuing unabated upstream of the Deka River, the community is now suffering water problems. The few boreholes are not enough to water their cattle and get enough to drink.

“We are benefitting nothing. We have nothing. These mining companies are not helping at all. Whenever we cry for help, we just hear lip service,” Malaba Ncube said.

In a report by environmental watchdog, the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), the leaching of dangerous mining chemicals was affecting groundwater. Soil acidity around Deka River is now over 76%, which is very dangerous.

“Rainwater infiltrating through the overburden stockpiles and/or backfilled material and the underlying soils into the groundwater environment pollute the aquifers due to increased salt load and metals.”

One of the companies accused of discharging effluent into the Deka River, Zimberly, denied the accusations that the company is involved in environmentally unfriendly practices. The company says it had developed an alkalinisation station on Deka.

 “If I take you to Mwalidaanze Dam that we developed as an alkalinisation station on Deka, you will find the dam teeming with bream, catfish, livestock drinking water from there and crocodiles which have migrated from the Deka Bridge. So which effluents are we supposed to be releasing into the river that have had the impact of killing fish, cattle and livelihoods around the area?” a Zimberly director, Cephas Mandlenkosi Msipa, said.

 Scientific tests have shown that Deka River water quality has deteriorated drastically, while the water flow dynamics have been altered and there us evidence of heavy metal bioaccumulation in plants.

 It has been noted with great concern that soils are heavily contaminated due to disposal of chemicals from the mining activities.

This has greatly affected the growth of plants hence no trees are growing perfectly well in the area. According to the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela), the Deka River pollution has not only affected livestock, wild animals and aquatic life, but is also causing health problems for villagers living near the river.

 “Among our client’s members and other members of the community several cases of rotting teeth, swollen stomach, death of aquatic life and livestock and stunted growth of crops have been reported,” Zela said.

Zela argues that the people of Hwange should enjoy the right to water as enshrined in section 77 of the constitution of Zimbabwe. Deputy Mines minister Polite Kambamura said mining companies must adhere to environmental laws.

“Mining companies must adhere to environmental issues, especially what they committed in the Environmental Impact Assessment report. Effluent must not in any way be discharged into rivers and other related water bodies as this impacts negatively on the communities and general water ecosystem,” Kambamura said.

The state-run Environmental Management Agency (Ema) said mining companies are not allowed to discharge effluent in water bodies and failure to comply attracts a penalty.

“In as much as mining remains a vital economic cog, mining operations are known to impact negatively on the environment, especially if unsustainable practices are employed. In the case of the area in question, the uniqueness of coal mining is that it is associated with acid mine drainage (AMD), a major water pollution threat. Hence according to Statutory Instrument 6 of 2007, no operations are allowed to discharge effluent quality that does not meet the set standards, mandating project developers to, among other strategies, pre-treat the effluent to allowable standards before discharge into the environment,” Ema said in emailed responses.

Ema said the current effluent discharge mechanisms in Hwange were not efficient.

“The current effluent abatement technologies being implemented within the Hwange area specifically for AMD are not as effective as would be desired to entirely reduce the risk of pollution. However, the agency monitors these operations closely through effluent and ambient water quality monitoring programmes to timeously detect any pollution incidents. This enables a timeous response to avert a disaster or action on the part of the perpetrators.”

  •  This story was published as part of the We Investigate programme by the Centre for Innovation and Technology.

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