Zimbabwe faces a possible row with neighbours Botswana and Mozambique after it emerged that planned mining activities in the Matabeleland North region could disturb wildlife and contaminate the Zambezi River, according to a conservation group.
Zimbabwe, through a special presidential grant, has allowed China Africa Sunlight Energy to mine coal in the Gwayi valley.
But a conservation group is up in arms, saying the project may damage relations with regional partners, degrade the environment and affect the tourism sector adversely.
Gwayi Valley Intensive Conservation Area chair Langton Masunda said the Gwayi and Shangani rivers spill into the Zambezi and if there is contamination in either of them, then people downstream in Mozambique will be affected, leading to possible conflict.
Masunda said that coal mining would result in the contamination of underground water streams because chemicals such as ammonia, benzene and carbon would be released into the ground as a result of coal-mining activities.
Wildlife and dam at risk
He said Zimbabwe also shares wildlife population with neighbouring Botswana and mining activities in the Gwayi valley "would be disastrous because wildlife would be pushed into Botswana, which is well known to have dryer conditions than us". This, he said, would mean Botswana would have to find artificial water supplies for the wildlife.
Masunda said that the mining activities would also affect the habitat of the hundreds of elephants that President Robert Mugabe decreed in 1990 would be kept safe from culling or hunting.
Mugabe decreed that the elephants that roam the scenic safari area of the Hwange National Park were protected. The now more than 600 elephants became known as the presidential herd, and the decree stated that the elephants would be a symbol of Zimbabwe's commitment to responsible wildlife management. In 2011, Mugabe renewed his pledge to protect and conserve the elephants.
Matabeleland, Masunda said, has for many years planned to relieve the region of its water woes through the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project, which would rely on the construction of the Gwayi-Shangani Dam. Coal-mining activities in the area, he said, would affect the construction of that dam.
However, China Africa Sunlight Energy has said that it started consultations this month for a mining environmental impact assessment to listen to all concerns.
Environmental impact assessments
The miner has tasked a private company, Environmental Guardians Services, to conduct the assessment in part of the 120 000-hectare area.
Environmental Guardians Services said it has scheduled meetings at which it will hold talks with various stakeholders that include chiefs, local authorities in Lupane and Hwange and the Gwayi Valley Intensive Conservation Area.
Michael Montana, a consultant with Environmental Guardians Services, said they expected the concerns raised by the conservation body to be presented to its stakeholders meetings.
The assessment, Montana said, would include these concerns and be submitted to the Environmental Management Agency.
Montana said they would solve some of the problems in a "practical legal manner", but that others "are just impractical".
Montana said they had taken soil samples from the area for tests on chemical composition and would recommend to China Africa Sunlight Energy that these are maintained.
"We do not rule out the possibility of contamination, but measures will be put in place to avoid that," he said.
"The water used to wash the coal will be put into a pond and recycled. That water will carry a lot of chemicals, but efforts will be made [to ensure] that the water is recycled and does not come into contact with the streams."
Environment and Natural Resources Management Minister Francis Nhema said he would only comment on the matter after he had been given the environmental assessment report.
"We are waiting for the report. Those concerns will be included in the report for determination. I know that the organisation you are referring to is part of the stakeholders that would make an input towards the report," he said.
But China Africa Sunlight Energy does not appear to be waiting for the outcome of the environmental impact assessment.
The company's spokesperson, retired Colonel Charles Mugari, said it has already secured water rights from the ministry of water resources, a power generation licence and finalised modalities related to the national grid connection with the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority.
'Very little negative environment impact'
Mugari said his company had contributed $1-million to a community share-ownership scheme under the controversial indigenisation programme. It would also invest $2.1-billion to carry out three projects: thermal coal with a planned output of three million tonnes a year, washed coal peas at one million tonnes a year and coking coal at 500000 tonnes a year.
Mugari said most of the mining would happen underground, "hence very little negative environment impacts can be expected".
He said that the mine was expected to produce power to relieve the farming and manufacturing sectors, set up gas projects as well as a fertiliser plant.
"It is naive to imagine that developments of this nature cannot degrade the environment. What is important is that stakeholders in the situation should work together for a win-win situation. Zero sums as the end game will not work," he said.
China Africa Sunlight Energy is a joint venture between Oldstone Investments, a Zimbabwean investment vehicle, and Shandong Taishan Sunlight, a Chinese conglomerate formed in 2011 to focus on coal mining, methane bed gas extraction and thermal power generation in the area.