Hwange residents plead for collective intervention as coal fires escalate

Mary Mundeya / Regina Pasipanodya

Anele Mleya (four) and Mzingaye Moyo (seven) were out playing in June this year when they decided to drive away donkeys which were roaming around their homestead. As they were running towards the donkeys, the ground beneath shifted, pulling the two kids into one of the underground fires that burn in Zimbabwe’s coal mining town of Hwange.

Mzingaye managed to jump to safety while Anele was rescued a few minutes later by a passer-by. Her legs were badly burnt.

The two kids were recently discharged from Mother Patrick Hospital, where they spent more than a month nursing their wounds and their parents are yet to come to terms with the predicament that befell them.

“What happened to my little girl was unthinkable. If I had known that something as horrific as that was going to happen, I wouldn’t have left my hometown of Victoria Falls to visit my elder sister, who stays here in Hwange,” said Anele’s mum, Charlotte Ncube.

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She is not the only one in pain.

“My grandson is more than traumatised. As we speak, he is failing to have a meaningful conversation with anyone. He just stares and keeps quiet. Apart from the wounds he is nursing, I’m worried about his mental and emotional well-being,’’ said Grace Moyo, Mzingaye’s grandmother.

Grace Moyo, sitting in hospital with her injured grandson Mzingaye

The predicament that befell Anele and Mzingaye has become a regular occurrence to Hwange residents, both young and old. The list of victims of underground coal seam fires keeps growing.

Underground coal fires in Hwange

The underground coal fires are known as coal seam fires.

According to the Global Forest Watch, coal seam fires occur underground when a layer of coal in the earth’s crust is ignited. Therefore, due to the out-of-sight nature of the fires, they are often hard to detect at first, and even harder to extinguish causing the ground to become extremely hot and unstable, destroying roads and homes, as well as creating fiery sinkholes that swallow anything from cars to people.

The Global Forest Watch further explains that in most cases, the coal seam fires are ignited by human activity, usually in the process of coal mining or waste removal.

In Hwange, a mining town with a population of more than 40 000 people, many residents and animals have fallen victim to these underground coal seam fires.

The Centre for National Resource Governance (CNRG) 2021 report revealed that the coal seam fires in the mining town have become prevalent over the years, throughout the concession owned by Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) where there are also human settlements for the mine labour.

CNRG noted that the mine residue dumps found in Number 2 and 3 areas of HCCL are some of the most hazardous sites with raging underground coal seam fires.

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“Fires travel underground from one coal seam to another and subsist in the ground for many years. Therefore, due to the increase in mining activities in the area loose dry materials that land on hot coal dumps or coal waste quickly ignite fires that spread to coal seams,” the CNRG report further revealed.

Due to the increased number of coal mining companies in Hwange, coal waste has become the order of the day as they are now found everywhere on the surface posing more danger to people and animals.

Most coal mining companies in the area, including  Hwange Colliery Company, have been neglecting this issue.

The Greater Whange Residents Trust Coordinator Fidelis Chima said last year, Hwange Colliery said it had engaged a Germany company to find solutions to coal fires in the mining town. The company promised to give comprehensive feedback about the findings and way forward.

“Up to now, we have not seen or heard from them. This is worrying. I would want to believe that the Hwange Colliery is working hard to address this issue but the way they have been quiet about it has become so worrisome,” said Chima.

“Sadly, children have contributed toward the majority of casualties, suffering life-threatening injuries or malformations due to increased coal waste in the area and unprotected coal dumping sites.”

In 2022, the ground gave way under the feet of a ten-year-old Simba Mulezu, plunging him into burning coal underground while he was driving cattle home from his mother’s fields.

The incident left him with permanently deformed limbs.

He spent several months in the hospital. Hwange Colliery did not assist with hospital bills and other necessities.

In late 2021, an eight-year-old girl who was relieving herself in a bush was swallowed by the ground and fell into a coal seam fire. She later died from her wounds at a hospital.

Residents says HCCL has done very little to assist victims.

Ncube said she tried to reach out to the company when her child was burnt, but nothing came out of her efforts.

“It has been two weeks after the Hwange Colliery has learnt about the incident but they never returned or called to check up on the child,” said Ncube.

Moyo also reported the case to the company and an official visited the child once in hospital but never returned.

“They promised that they will be back but up until now it has been weeks and they have not yet returned,” said Moyo.

In a telephone call with She Corresponds Africa, Hwange Colliery Company Marketing, Corporate Affairs, and Public Relations Executive Beauty Mutombe said she could not say anything regarding the situation as she is out of the country.

The Way Forward

The outgoing chairperson of Parliament of Zimbabwe’s Mines and Mining Development Committee Edmond Mukaratigwa told She Corresponds Africa that addressing environmental hazards such as coal fires that have become prevalent in the mining town has become a major safety concern for the government of Zimbabwe.

“However, I believe that it is not easy to remove underground coal fires completely since it is a natural hazard, but I feel that there could be other ways that we can do to educate and raise awareness in communities about the dangers of coal fires and how they can reduce the outbreak,” he said.

CNRG Director, Farai Maguwu said the first step towards addressing a problem is having the will and intention to do so.

“We thoroughly investigated the fires since 2015 and published our report in November 2021. The government and Hwange Colliery Company Limited reacted to the report by announcing that they were engaging a German consulting firm, DMT group, to investigate the fires and give recommendations on how to deal with the fires.  It is now 19 months since they said investigations have begun and neither Hwange Colliery nor DMT is willing to disclose the status of the investigation,” Maguwu said.

“Considering that there are more coal mining companies in Hwange, the fires will increase because there has been no intervention to address the problem. In the absence of concrete action by the company, I think there is a need to sue HCCL for and on behalf of the coal seam fire victims as well as to compel them to take decisive action against the fires.

“We also want to see key stakeholders such as the Environmental Management Agency, Ministry of Mines, residents, and Hwange Colliery company regularly meet to find a solution to the dangers of coal fires,” added Maguwu.

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