Unregulated coal mining in Zimbabwe could result in environmental degradation

The Hwange Thermal Power Station is the biggest power plant in Zimbabwe with an installed capacity of 920MW. It is owned and operated by the national electricity company Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority. WhyAfrica visited the Hwange area on day 29, 30 and 31 of its Southern Africa Road Trip. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Unregulated coal mining in Zimbabwe could result in environmental degradation     

Although mining in the Hwange coal belt could benefit the country immensely, unregulated activities in the region could lead to the collapse of an extremely sensitive ecosystem, and the degradation of an exceptional natural asset.

By Leon Louw, owner and editor of WhyAfrica     

Although there are encouraging signs that Zimbabwe’s mining and tourism sectors are rebuilding in the aftermath of Covid-19, the country is facing several environmental challenges that could be detrimental to its economic growth.

As part of its Southern African Overland Road Trip, WhyAfrica visited the Hwange coal belt and Hwange National Park to ascertain the impact of numerous coal mining activities in the area, and found encouraging signs, but also red flagged several unsustainable endeavours.

While international tourists are returning to attractions like Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, unregulated mining activities, overgrazing, population pressure, climate change and poverty could lead to environmental degradation and the eventual collapse of an entire ecosystem if solutions are not found urgently.

The 200km from Victoria Falls to main camp in Hwange National Park could be a “golden corridor” for Zimbabwe. Instead, an almost 80km stretch from Hwange to Dete, which is close to Hwange National Park, is turning into a wasteland because of unregulated mining activities, deforestation, and severe overgrazing.

The poor soil conditions and lack of surface water in and around the Hwange National Park makes it naturally difficult to farm or develop a healthy agricultural sector. Further degradation because of deforestation and overgrazing by large number of goats, donkeys, and cattle, has resulted in severe erosion and the removal of topsoil, and signs of the formation of erosion gullies and the onset of desertification are already visible.

Proliferation of mining activities

To add to these environmental challenges the number of coal mining operations in the area have increased substantially over the last three years. With the construction of Chinese owned Zimbabwe Zhongxin Electrical Energy’s (ZZEE) thermal power plant close to Hwange last year, more people are moving to an already overpopulated area in the hope of finding much needed work, in a country where large numbers of people are unemployed.

This has worsened the situation for local communities where running water and electricity remains only a promise. Even though the new Chinese operated thermal plant feeds 50MW into the country’s power grid, Zimbabwe does not generate enough electricity to supply rural communities and villages across the country, or to boost its manufacturing and industrial capabilities.

Despite being less than 180km from the Zambezi River, the fourth longest river in Africa and almost within walking distance from the Hwange Thermal Power Station, the communities of Hwange and surrounding areas still do not have easy access to clean drinking water or reliable electricity.

The Hwange Thermal Power Station is the biggest power plant in Zimbabwe with an installed capacity of 920MW. It is owned and operated by the national electricity company Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority.

In addition to the proliferation of smaller Chinese owned collieries and quarries close to the Hwange town, rumours and accusations about illegal coal mining and the awarding of exploration licenses within the Hwange National Park, persists. Although I did not come across any illegal mining activities within Hwange National Park, or close to its borders, there are worrying signs of unregulated mining activities and pollution (visual and air pollution) only about 100 km from Main Camp, which adds further pressure to a precarious situation.

Are there benefits for local communities?

The question that needs to be asked is whether these Chinese owned mining operations are improving the livelihood of communities and the environment in the long term, or further adding to its detriment? Are the communities benefitting from coal mining in Hwange? Is mining the Hwange coal belt only enriching a few Zimbabwean politicians and Chinese companies? Are Chinese companies beholden to any Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) standards, as mining operations are in other parts of the world? What are the environmental impacts of these smaller, shallow open cast coal operations in an ecologically sensitive area?

Issuing coal mining licenses for short term gain is gambling with the future of a country already carrying the burden of extreme poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity. Mining can play an important role and with tourism could turn this corridor into one of the richest and most attractive in Africa, if it is regulated, and if sustainability is the future vision. If not, Hwange could be heading for an environmental and social disaster.

Unregulated coal mining in Zimbabwe could result in environmental degradation

Read more about the mining in the Hwange Coal Belt and Zimbabwe’s relationship with China in the next issue of the WhyAfrica’s magazine that will be available in early September. More in-depth articles about our Road Trip will be available in our research reports that you will be able to purchase on the WhyAfrica website from early next year.                     

The WhyAfrica Southern Africa Overland Road Trip will take us through five countries in 44 days. During this time, we will drive more than 9700km on the good roads, the bad roads, dirt roads and tarred roads, to visit close to 30 projects in the mining, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, tourism, conservation, and development sectors.

 

This trip is made possible by:

 

 

Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in natural resources and African affairs.        

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message. WhyAfrica launched its first ever digital magazine in November 2021. The company will undertake a road trip through South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana in June and July 2022. If you are interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities, please contact me at leon@whyafrica.co.za. We have a wide range of different packages and combo deals to give your company the greatest exposure to a rapidly growing, African readership.  

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  Unregulated coal mining in Zimbabwe could result in environmental degradation    

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