Zimbabwe: Troubled Waters - Chemical Pollution in the Marange District

A recent study found that diamond mining companies are endangering thousands by polluting rivers, but holding them accountable is likely to prove tricky.

Mutare - Thousands of Birchenough Bridge residents and patients at a local hospital, downstream of Zimbabwe's notorious Marange diamond fields, are panicking after a recent report suggested they may be at risk of developing health complications such as cancer from metal-poisoned water.

A recent study, commissioned by the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (ZELA) and conducted by the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), revealed that the Save river, from which water supplies are drawn, as well as the Singwizi and Odzi tributaries, are laden with dangerous chemicals.

The report lays the blame for the hazardous pollution on diamond-mining operations, and ZELA alongside local villagers have applied to the High Court to stop three diamond mining companies from discharging polluting materials into the rivers. At least one of the three firms has already rejected the scientific findings, however, and given the vested interests in these companies by influential individuals as well as the currently ineffective system of punishing polluting companies, there is concern over what can actually be done to tackle the issue.

Testing the water

Three diamond mining companies - Anjin, Diamond Mining Corporation, and Marange Resources - operate along the rivers and for over two years, the Odzi, Singwizi and Save have been visibly muddy, betraying their pollution.

According to the UZ report, a range of elements found in the water could prove a serious hazard to people's health. The heavy concentrations of chromium and nickel - both constituents of a chemical compound used in diamond extraction - "are potentially carcinogenic agents" warns the study. Levels of iron - another element used in diamond extraction - exceed World Health Organisation standards and "suggest that the local population could be at risk of iron poisoning". High levels of fluoride could lead to dental and skeletal flourosis, and high bacterial contamination poses "an immediate risk of outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid", reads the report.

If true, the lives and livelihoods of thousands of households could be in danger as water from these rivers is used just for drinking but to irrigate crops, bathe, and care for livestock. Some of this water could also be being piped on to Mozambique, and river additionally passes through the 6,000 hectare Save Conservancy, a wildlife sanctuary often heralded as a model for conservation.

Responding to the report

A provincial official from Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), the government agency responsible for the country's water supplies, spoke to Think Africa Press on condition of anonymity. He insisted that the water supplied to Birchenough Bridge was safe as it would have been filtered by sand as ZINWA's pipes tapped the water from the river bed.

Pressed on whether they had run tests to determine the nature of the water pollutants and apply the requisite chemicals, he claimed they had. And he expressed ignorance of the UZ study. Enquiries to ZINWA for its official position went unanswered.

On the other hand, Manicaland's Provincial Health Director, Tapiwa Murambi, expressed confidence in the university's findings, on which the ministry said it planned to act.

Kingstone Chitotombe, provincial manager for the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), also agreed that, while his organisation had not independently verified the UZ report, the three diamond mining companies operating in Marange were polluting the rivers. Chitotombe told Think Africa Press that the EMA was contemplating starting legal proceedings against the polluting companies. He believed a court ruling would have far reaching consequences and that even a verbal warning following a conviction would elicit a favourable response.

Treading political waters

Chitotombe could, however, be being overly optimistic. On previous occasions of being found polluting, the mining companies have done little to change their practices, and powerful individuals with vested interests in the companies could make changing the status quo tough.

It is notable that earlier this year, journalists Andrew Mambondiyani, Sydney Saize, and two other colleagues were charged with "criminal nuisance" for investigating the pollution and interviewing locals.

In July, after publishing the UZ report, ZELA contacted mining company Anjin to request the pollution stop. The response three days later denied the allegations. "Honestly speaking," the letter read, "it happened one or two times. Pumps broke down and little recycled water was not pumped away in time, resulting in the overflow of the water from the ponds, which the company has received criticism and was fined by EMA."

The letter from Anjin was signed by Brigadier-General Charles Tarumbwa, a senior official with the mining company. And, according to London-based NGO Global Witness, he is not the only high-ranking official from the ruling ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe's military and security forces holding key positions in Marange diamond mining companies. Former Air Vice Marshall Robert Mhlanga chairs the board of Mbada Diamonds, for example, while members of Anjin's board include the permanent secretary of Zimbabwe's Ministry of Defence, two commissioners of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, and current and former officers of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, say Global Witness.

Changing the tide?

Another impediment to improving pollution is the currently ineffective system of punishing polluting firms. Mbada Diamonds is a joint venture between state-owned Marange Resources Ltd and Grandwell Holdings Ltd., a subsidiary of the South African company Reclam. In its 2011 annual report, Reclam explained that it was more cost-effective to pollute and pay the necessary fines than to invest in pollution control.

It reads: "Fees are assessed for exceeding agreed limits on emissions and effluents. Currently these fees are generally small in relation to the cost of environmental protection equipment and it is generally less expensive to pay the fees than to install anti-pollution devices. Further, the applicable laws do not generally require clean-up of environmental pollutants, and when clean-up is required, the applicable laws provide no guidance as to the extent to which the clean-up must be carried out."

The effect of river pollutants on the health of thousands of individuals, livelihoods of thousands of households, and the environment could be disastrous, and are indeed already being felt. Many now accept that the Marange diamond mining companies - Anjin, Diamond Mining Corporation, and Marange Resources - are responsible for much of the hazardous waste and that they are not fulfilling the obligations that come with operating upstream of water supplies many Zimbabweans thousands depend on. Outrage and action is growing, but holding polluters accountable could prove difficult.

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