Illegal miners bury  Umzingwane River

Raymond Jaravaza, [email protected]

TWO years ago, Zenzo Zikhali watched in agony as his two sons and villagers slaughtered his ox in the middle of Umzingwane River after the beast had plunged into a deep pit left open by illegal gold miners operating in the area.

The extent of the injury sustained by the ox left Zikhali with no other option but to slaughter it right in the pit.

Over the years, Zikhali and fellow villagers from Ward Four, in Esibomvu Village in Umzingwane District, Matabeleland South Province have had to watch helplessly as the water levels of their major river that used to sustain both people and animals, dropped by each passing day.

Umzingwane River, a major artery that feeds Umzingwane Dam downstream from Zikhali’s village, is getting drier by each passing day due to activities of illegal gold miners .

As the scramble for gold intensifies in the river, so does the fight for water between animals and humans.

It’s a fight for gold and water in equal measure that has put villagers and gold miners at odds with each other but for villagers like Zikhali who continue to lose livestock, the amakorokoza appear to hold the upper hand as they keep enjoying the fruits of their labour with impunity at the expense of the community.

“Umzingwane River is now infested with open pits that are left by gold miners and our cattle and donkeys are always at the risk of falling into those pits. Our livestock need water and the river is the only place where they can get it but we now live in fear of losing our only source of wealth due to the huge pits that are dug by the gold panners.

“A majority of the gold panners come from faraway places such as Binga, Gwanda and Beitbridge so they don’t feel the pain that we go through when we lose our cattle as a result of the those pits that they dig in the river.

“I lost an ox two years ago after it fell into a pit in the river and we had to slaughter it right there, there was no chance of it surviving because it had broken it’s legs,” said Zikhali.

While the villagers lament the shrinking water levels in Umzingwane River and the general land degradation caused by illegal gold panning activities, 60 kilometres away in Bulawayo, hundreds of thousands of residents are feeling the pinch of going for days with dry taps.

While Esibomvu villagers know and can identify the culprits who are behind the water woes in their community,                                      Bulawayo residents can only blame the Bulawayo City Council for the persistent water cuts that sometimes stretch for weeks.

Illegal mining activity in Umzingwane River

A Chronicle news crew witnessed first-hand the effects of illegal panning activities that adversely affect the water levels at one of Bulawayo’s supply dams — Umzingwane Dam.

The day long investigation was prompted by a report released by the Bulawayo City Council’s environment department which stated that municipal police arrested 140 illegal miners for panning for gold near the city’s water bodies causing massive siltation between January and September this year.

Siltation is the process when sand or soil accumulates in a dam or river thereby reducing the carrying capacity of the water body. 

The city council’s environmental report also touched on degradation of the Greater Bulawayo and its water catchment areas.

“Routine patrols were conducted by the rangers in the water catchment areas. There were 132 hand tools confiscated inclusive of four detectors. Nine illegal miners were arrested, making a total of 140 panners arrested and detector machines confiscated between January and September this year. The panners were handed over to Esigodini police for prosecution while the tools will be used in court as exhibits. There is rampant gold panning in the city’s water catchment areas such as Umzingwane,” the report reads.

Despite continued raids over the years, the gold panners keep returning. In the report, the city said joint and extended patrols were conducted from January to September and eight trucks were impounded.

“A total of 37 tickets were issued to various offenders for various offences and 33 tickets had been paid for resulting in council realising US$3 472. There were still four outstanding tickets worth US$7  571,” the report reads.

The level of destruction caused by gold panners is alarming judging by the number and sizes of open pits along the Umzingwane River. 

Some of the pits have water but the river is generally dry, which leaves livestock like cattle and donkeys with no option but to drink from the pits thereby exposing themselves to danger of falling into the pits.

A villager, Mr Ambrose Ntuli, who had accompanied the news crew to the river said by this time of the year, 10 to 15 years ago, Umzingwane River would be flowing.

“We used to fish in the river at this time of the year, sometimes crocodiles were even spotted but that has all changed. All you see now are heaps of soil left by gold panners in the river that will be gradually washed into Umzingwane Dam. Right now the water levels at Umzingwane Dam are so low, it’s very worrying to say the least.

“It’s the rainy season but the way the river is so dry makes us wonder how our livestock will survive in winter. Now I understand why people say there is no water in Bulawayo, how can a whole city survive from Umzingwane Dam that is so dry?” asked Mr Ntuli. 

As we were chatting to Ntuli, a group of men emerged from the bushes close to the river carrying plastic buckets, shovels and picks. Two of the gentlemen and now joined by a middle aged woman, started working in one of the open pits. 

“They dig for gold, day and night. It’s like they just don’t care that their illegal activities also affect the community. There is nothing that we can do to stop them, in fact we fear them because they can be violent,” said Mr Ntuli. 

A five-kilometre drive took the news crew to Umzingwane Dam, one of the major water bodies that supply the City of Kings with water. 

Bulawayo water is drawn from six dams — Inyankuni, Mtshabezi, Insiza, Lower Ncema, Umzingwane and Upper Ncema. Last year in September, Umzingwane Dam was decommissioned as the water levels were  critically low.

A municipal worker who was manning the tower at Umzingwane Dam said the recent rains have not helped the                          situation as the water levels are still very low. 

“There is too much sand in the dam hence the holding capacity has been drastically reduced. The city council must come up with ways to remove the sand,” said the worker who refused to be named.

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