The untold tragedies of coal mining in Zimbabwe

Though the resource has been central to power generation in Zimbabwe, innumerable people experience hell within the dangerous ‘coal hell pits’ of Hwange each year, with most catastrophes going undocumented.

Situated within the edges of the majestic Hwange National Park, and sitting on one of the world’s largest coal deposits, Hwange could have been an ideal home for Simba Mulezu. But his life took a different turn after he fell into one of the ‘coal hell pits’ that have become a curse to the Hwange coal mining community in Zimbabwe.

Hwange is situated in one of Zimbabwe’s most arid regions in Matabeleland North Province, some 485 kilometres south-west of the country’s capital, Harare. The city has a population of about 33,210 people, most of them living nearby to the underground hot coal pockets.

In August 2015, Simba was driving away cattle from his mother’s field when the ground gave in under his feet. The next minute, half his body had sunk into the burning coal underground, leaving him to burn. He was 10 years old.

The underground fires left the thirteen-year-old boy with deformed limbs, rendering him incapacitated and severely psychologically affected. Three years later, Simba still suffers from the accident and can’t spend much time outdoors, as his skin still won’t endure the region’s severe weather conditions.

His widowed mother, Susan Mulezu, has no better words to talk about how ‘underground hot coal pits’ have severely burned her son’s body and left him with deformed limbs and feet.

“For me, my son’s catastrophe shows that coal is a curse to humankind. Since their father passed away, I struggle to get my son and his three younger siblings to go to school. I want to secure a better future for them, but since my son fell into the coal pit, he can not do much of what children his age do,” said Susan.

The Director of the Centre for Natural Resources Governance, Farai Muguu, criticises the mining company Hwange Colliery for failing to control the situation and is now asking for them to compensate the victims of the deadly hot coal furnaces.

“This young boy had his childhood shattered. What resulted in this tragedy is Hwange Colliery failing to extinguish raging underground seam fires and alternatively to put warning signs on dangerous areas around the colliery. Women and children often walk along these grey roads covered by a dense coat of coal dust. Their heaviness hardens the lungs, exacerbating the risks of cardiopulmonary and respiratory diseases,” explains Farai Muguu.

Hwange Colliery management responded to the tragedy by only acknowledging that they were “aware of this young boy’s predicament” and that they are “in the process of seeing how best to deal with the issue” without giving much detail of how and when they were going to act.

The fires are caused by combustion on underground coal deposits. They are responsible for chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and elevated occurrence of premature death.

A social and economical scourge

Swirls of black smoke and carbon dust from the local thermal power plant covers Hwange’s streets, causing further breathing difficulties to already overburdened residents.

Besides being unemployed and languishing in poverty because the coal mine has been operating below capacity due to economic challenges plaguing the country, the residents of this arid area face life-threatening risks every day.

As they bear the brunt of carrying out much of the domestic chores such as fetching firewood and cattle herding, women and children are the most affected by these plagues.

Today, 43% of Zimbabwe’s electrification capacity is generated from thermal energy, and the country is one of the leading coal producers with reserves amounting to about 12 billion metric tonnes. Although coal remains key to Zimbabwe, there is a need for the country to develop and employ clean coal processing technology, environmental rehabilitation, and social support systems for vulnerable people living in such risky communities, a measure that has not been taken by the government-run coal mining company.

Simba’s case represents one of many coal mining risks that go unreported. As countries are in the quest to achieve universal access to affordable clean energy by 2030, the success of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 also rests on ensuring human and environmental safety be prioritised in the process.

Watmore Makokoba is a freelance investigative journalist and multimedia reporter from Zimbabwe. He was trained by Hivos and covers climate change, renewable energy and human rights topics.

This feature article was published in The Beam #7. Subscribe now to read more on the topic.