Underground Fires In Hwange, The Cost of Negligence - Part 2

An 8-year-old girl got burnt by underground coal fire in Hwange on November 8, 2021. Image by Cite

BY LIZWE SEBATA | @The_CBNews | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | DEC 28, 2021

This is a continuation of the dangers of coal fires in Hwange, in this piece, Sebata shows the practical dangers and raises the question of who should take responsibility, and how?

HWANGE (The Citizen Bulletin) — On November 8, 2021, Alisha Muzvite left her homestead to relieve herself in the bushes, a day that turned tragic. A small hill made of rubble from an old dump mine in Hwange that the 8-year old climbed collapsed, swallowing her to waist level.

Below the earth’s surface, there was an underground coal fire spot.

The minor suffered serious burns and had to be transferred to Bulawayo’s Mpilo Central Hospital for medical attention. The incident happened at Hwange’s Makwikwa village, where there are unclaimed coal pits left by mining companies.

This is not an isolated incident.

A number of victims have been left handicapped by the underground coal fires in Hwange’s coal-mining town. Instead of celebrating the underground riches, residents in Hwange are cursing the presence of tonnes of untapped resources in the district.

“The underground fires in Hwange, in particular under the jurisdiction of the Hwange Colliery Company (HCC), is a cause of concern. We are seeing so many people getting burnt and it looks like there is no solution in sight,” says Greater Hwange Residents Trust co-ordinator Fidelis Chuma.

“What is even worrisome is that members of the public do not have access to reports that HCC would have compiled with regards the number of people getting burnt, and the causes of fire.”

A study titled: Geomorphology of Coal Seam Fires says coal fires occur in underground natural coal seams, in exposed surface seams, and in coal storage or waste piles.

The fires ignite through spontaneous combustion or natural or anthropogenic causes. Surface collapse in coal fire areas is common. Coal fires are seen as significantly affecting the evolution of the landscape.

Farai Maguwu says the environmentalist research organisation he leads, the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), is documenting several cases of villagers, in particular children, being burnt by underground coal fires.

“The cases we recorded and brought up during CNRG workshops in Hwange. After learning about the environmental effects of mining, some mothers would invite CNRG teams to their homes to see their injured children,” Maguwu says. “This indicates a far much bigger problem given that our workshops target a very small group of residents.”

“A thorough investigation will most likely lead to other cases. If there is awareness-raising by the government and Hwange Colliery Company Limited coupled with practical help to the victims and their families, more cases will be identified.”

Simba Mulezu, then 10 years old, was permanently handicapped after falling into the raging Hwange underground fires in 2016.

Simba was driving away cattle from his mother’s field when the ground gave in under his feet, sinking his body into the burning coal underground.

The underground fires left the now 16-year-old Simba with deformed limbs, rendering him incapacitated and severely psychologically affected.

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.

Chuma says mining companies must be forced to compensate the victims.

“There have to be other punitive measures like even making the company pay a hefty amount of money, or in the worst-case scenario they should have their licences revoked,” Chuma argues.

ALSO READ: Hwange Residents Live In Fear As Underground Fires Rage - Part 1

“The mining companies should seal off those underground fires, erecting danger warning signs and putting barricades around dangerous places.”

Maguwu is in agreement but says hefty fines are not enough without policy interventions.

“The children are permanently disabled as a consequence of a mining activity that produces profits…But this is made possible due to policy gaps. The law must raise the cost of negligence and ensure victims are adequately and fairly compensated,” Maguwu notes.

“The companies must take care of medical bills and ensure victims get the best possible medical care. It must also be made clear that paying medical bills is different from compensation.”

Mines minister Winston Chitando did not respond to questions sent by The Citizen Bulletin.

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Underground coal fires, Economic development and Social justice, Public health, Hwange

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