Hwange underground fires threaten thousands

by Tulip Charowa

ZIMBABWE’S oldest and largest mining firm, Hwange Colliery Company Ltd (HCCL), has contracted a German-based company to help find solutions to underground coal fires.

The fires have been burning for years and are threatening homes and lives of 20,000 people in the coal mining town of Hwange in Matabeleland North.

A report by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) revealed horrific stories of people sinking into underground coal fires in the town. In 2009, a 10-year-old boy was herding cattle when the ground gave in under his feet. Recently, an eight-year-old girl died after suffering third degrees burns when she fell into a coal fire pit as the ground beneath her carved in.

Farai Maguwu, the director of CNRG, told TimesLIVE that the coal mining company needed fire tracker systems to identify high-risk areas in the community.

“HCCL is under administration. I do not understand how they will raise the money to pay the German company. Putting out coal seam fires is a very expensive exercise. HCCL should work on getting a state-of-the-art fire tracking system and erect fences around dangerous sites.

“The problem is not only about humans falling into fires, it also affects wildlife which can get agitated by fires, resulting in exacerbation of human/wildlife conflicts. The company must also carry out vigorous awareness-raising campaigns in the community. Most Hwange residents are not aware of the prevalence of coal seam fires,” said Maguwu.

Coal seam fire are an underground burning fire and are ignited by human activity in the process of coal mining. They can burn for decades. The out-of-sight fires pose health threats to surrounding communities and the environment hazards include toxic fumes, reigniting fires and sinkholes.

In a statement, HCCL MD Charles Zinyemba said the mining company had invested in a drone and engaged a German firm to deal with the underground coal fires.

“HCCL has invested in a drone that has a thermal camera for security purposes and the identification of underground fires. As part of long-term mitigation measures, Hwange Colliery Company has since contracted a German-based specialist company to assist with necessary interventions. The organisation is among the best engineering teams in the world who have intervened in coal seam fires such as we are experiencing,” said Zinyemba.

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