Neglected underground coal fires threaten lives of Zimbabweans | Environmental News

Hwange, Zimbabwe – Ten-year-old Simba Mulezu was driving cattle home from his mother’s cornfields when the ground beneath his feet gave way, plunging him into burning coals underground.

The incident left him with permanently deformed limbs.

“I was in hospital for several months and Hwange Colliery Company did not help me with hospital bills and other supplies,” Mulezu, now 22, told Al Jazeera. “[Only] my parents and relatives assisted me.”

Coal fires have become a major problem in Hwange over the past five years and are a regular occurrence in various parts of the mining town. One fire has been burning underground for 15 years.

In late 2021, an eight-year-old girl helping herself in a nearby bush area was engulfed by the ground and fell into a coal seam. She later died of her injuries in a hospital.

Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) is located in Hwange in southwestern Zimbabwe. Residents of the city, with a population of about 40,000, are living in fear as the company has failed to shield coal mines and take measures to extinguish the fires.

Fidelis Chima, coordinator of the Greater Whange Residents Trust (GWRT), said underground and surface fires have killed two children and injured more than a dozen in recent years. He accused the company of not taking the threat seriously.

“Hwange Colliery Company seems incapable of dealing decisively with underground fires. It’s sad that Hwange Colliery makes it hard to take responsibility for residents living in the concession area because it tends to evict people who want to make it responsible,” Chima said.

Around the world, hundreds of fires burn low and slow on dirty fuel beneath the Earth, some smoldering for decades, according to Global Forest Watch, an open source monitor.

“These fires are known as coal fires. They occur underground when a layer of coal in the Earth’s crust is ignited. Because the fires are out of sight, they are often difficult to detect in the beginning and even more difficult to extinguish,” said Global Forest Watch.

Hwange residents complain that Hwange Colliery Company has neglected their safety for years and they now live in fear, especially for their children who cannot read warning signs.

In the absence of proper safety measures at coal dumps, the majority of victims were children, who suffered life-threatening injuries or deformities.

“The company engaged Madumabisa tribal elders to run awareness campaigns about coal fires. But since the fire has been threatening people from the ground up for more than 15 years, I don’t know if our community is safe or not,” said Cosmas Nyoni, a councilor.

Another Hwange official, Lovemore Ncube, said the company has added signage around areas of underground fires to warn people, but children still die or are maimed.

“Late last year we had an eight-year-old girl who was burned and later died of the burns. I was told that HCCL has hired a German company that will try to put out the fire. It has barricaded the area through signage,” Ncube said.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Hwange Colliery Company Corporate Affairs Manager Beauty Mutombe defended the company and described the victims as violators.

“People enter those areas with clear signs. People steal the fence and enter the private property of the company,” said Mutombe, adding that HCCL has engaged the services of German company DMT Group to attend the coal fires.

Mining and Mining Development Minister Winston Chitando visited a site where a road had been torn apart by the coal fires and promised that Hwange Colliery Company would take action to address the problem.

“Having these international experts shows the magnitude of the commitment. They have said they need until the end of March to complete their work. The government is taking this issue seriously and decisive work will be done to address the issue once and for all,” Chitando said.

DMT said in a January statement that a report on the “extinguishing strategy” would be presented to HCCL management and the government in March. According to Mutombe, however, that report has not been received.

“DMT would not submit the report before the end of March, but draw its conclusions and submit the report after that. The report is not yet available. It will be made public when it’s out,” Mutombe said.

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