ADULTS and small children, some as young as four, form a beeline as they take turns to go deep into a disused gold mining shaft, from which they come out dangerously balancing bucket loads of mud, with their clothes water-soaked.
BY STEPHEN TSOROTI
Although these villagers have resorted to gold panning as a way to earn a living, their prospects for the future are now grim after power utility Zesa switched off electricity at Lenox Mine in Mashava.
Just recently, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority followed suit, cutting off water supplies, leaving the former mine workers to wallow in poverty long after the mine owners had deserted the mine.
More than 700 residents and illegal artisanal miners now rely on a disused mine shaft for drinking and bathing water. They have also resorted to open defecation, as their toilets are now dysfunctional following the water cuts. The non-collection of garbage and dilapidated structures completes a pallid picture of conditions the residents have been putting up with in the last three months.
Enedy Zimuto, a resident at the mine, described the situation as serious and needing urgent redress.
“We have not had water for three months now. Officials from Zinwa came and cut off water supplies saying the company owed the authority several millions of dollars,” she told NewsDay Weekender. “We have resorted to going into the mine shafts for our water needs.”
Lenox Mine, once one of the notable gold producers in the country, fell on hard times after it was taken over by Mines deputy minister Fred Moyo.
The mine, which has now been overrun by informal miners, popularly known as makorokoza, who come from as far as Kadoma, Gokwe, Kwekwe, Buhera and Harare, ceased operations due to mismanagement and termination of electricity supplies by Zesa due to a ballooning power bill, which went unpaid over a lengthy period.
Former workers are still owed severance wages and salaries, with most of them now living a next-to-destitute life. DSO Mine, a stone’s throw away, along the Masvingo-Bulawayo Road close to Balmain shopping centre, is facing a same dilemma.
Frail-looking Chokondo Wodala, a resident at the former gold mine, recounted that they have spent over four years without safe drinking water and have now resorted to drinking water from a disused DSO mine shaft.
“We are drawing our water from the mine shaft. This is our only source of water that we have,” a distraught Wodala, said.
She said those with money had resorted to buying water for drinking from Balmain Shops.
Both residents and illegal miners are oblivious to the dangers of water pollution and their less than ideal living conditions, over which environmentalists have expressed concern.
According to the Radiation Protection Authority of Zimbabwe (RPAZ), abandoned and exhausted gold mines can experience acid and uranium pollution if operators fail to reclaim or cap waste with impermeable materials such as clay and secure disused mine water sources. The authority submits that some environments in the mining areas are already danger of contamination.
RPAZ chief executive, Reward Severa, said: “Piles of so called waste rock contain elevated concentration of radioactive nuclides when compared to normal rock. These piles continue to threaten people and the environment after the shutdown of mines due to the release of radon gas and seepage-water containing radioactive and toxic materials.”
RPAZ is responsible for the notification and national registering of radiation sources, ensuring safety and security of radiation sources, inspections and enforcement of the environmental monitoring and waste management of radioactive materials.
In a 2014 report, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) castigated mining giants, who abandoned operations leaving mineworkers destitute.
EMA, which lashed out at mining giants for neglecting mines once they exhausted mineral extraction, said thousands of former mine workers and their families were in danger of contracting diseases, as chemicals used in processing minerals find their way into sources of water and remain active long after the mining had ceased.
“Once prosperous mining towns are now ghost towns and dilapidated. Over 100 000 families are still living at these abandoned mines, which are dotted around the country and they are in danger of chemical reactions from used chemicals in processing these minerals,” read the report in part.
The agency said studies on the environmental and human health assessments have identified that gold stamp milling centres are the main centre of mercury pollution. Mercury was found in air, sediments and soil, with the largest concentration being air. Results also showed that mercury pollution of water and soil is limited to a radius of less than 5km from the milling centres. Most of the mercury ends up accumulating in the aquatic food chains.
Health experts say mercury, which is particularly harmful, attacks the central nervous system causing trauma and twitching, memory loss, and irreversible brain, lung and kidney damage.
“The environment surrounding abandoned mines poses serious health risks to inhabitants,” EMA’s education and advocacy officer, Steady Kangata, said.
“The effects of exposure to mercury are quite often lethal and irreversible with young children facing the greatest level of risk.”