Conflict over water threatens mining, farming communities

While mining and farming activities have been hailed for creating employment and bringing development to Zimbabwe, development is still being hampered by lack of access to clean and affordable water, a situation that is resulting in conflicts in some communities.

Notwithstanding economic empowerment efforts through land redistribution and the promotion of small-scale mining, communities in mining and farming areas are facing stiff challenges, risks and conflicts emanating from water shortage. Among those affected are people who have been relocated to pave way for diamond mining activities at Chiadzwa in eastern Zimbabwe, where livelihoods are being disrupted by a stringent water usage regime and pollution of water sources by mining firms.

In the case of Chiadzwa, diamond mining firms undertook to pay for and ensure a constant supply of water for use by relocated communities. However, the promise is not being fulfilled as the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) is demanding that communities pay for the use of water they are getting from rivers and other natural sources. Apart from the need for clean water for drinking and domestic use, the communities largely use the water for irrigating gardens and livestock rearing.

Situation desperate

With members of relocated communities failing to pay for the water, ZINWA is now barring them from using natural water sources for watering gardens. This ban is threatening the survival of these communities considering how they live in a drought-prone area where gardening is a major source of livelihood. As exposed through an investigative visit by this reporter, the situation is so desperate that villagers are resorting to watering their gardens at night to avoid being detected by ZINWA officials.

‘Water has become more expensive to access. We have been forced into an urban set up where we have to pay for access of water,’ said villager Peter Marange. In order for them to use community water sources for agricultural purposes, Marange and other peasant farmers have to pay ZINWA a monthly fee of between $5 and $7.This is impossible as the villagers depend on subsistence farming for survival.

But while villagers are barred from utilising the community’s natural water sources for watering their gardens, local companies use the water for mining purposes. This is contrary to practises in other countries such as South Africa, where community water sources are protected by policies and laws requiring mining companies to declare their sources of water before being granted operating licences.

Severely affected

In the absence of a policy framework that protects communities from unsustainable use of water by mining companies and other extractive industries, natural water sources in areas surrounding Chiadzwa have been severely affected by toxic substances being emitted from diamond mining activities and the production of ethanol by the Greenfuel company at Chisumbanje.

The pollution of natural water sources in Marange has been confirmed by the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association s (ZELA), which says that diamonds mining firms are releasing toxic affluent into the Save River and other water sources. As pointed out by ZELA, these toxic substances pose a serious health threat to villagers and livestock. ZELA blamed the pollution on big companies that have protection from powerful political figures. An Officer said ‘EMA’s hands are tied because of political interference in the operations of these companies’

Cattle drowning

Gladys Chiadzwa of Marange said that cattle were drowning in the muddy waters created by mining companies that release mud in the rivers. This was confirmed by a consultant environmentalist who said that none of the mining companies operating in Chiadzwa had systems in place to recycle water.

Pollution is also affecting underground water sources, worsening the problem of water scarcity for small-scale farming communities in Marange, Chisumbabnje and other surrounding areas.

Communities in the sugarcane producing areas of Chiredzi and Mkwasine are also reeling under the disempowering effects of inequitable water usage. Particularly pronounced during low rainfall periods, the struggle for water in this part of the lowveld pits villagers and small-scale farmers against the powerful sugarcane farmers.

Kyle, Manjirenji and Bangala dams that supply irrigation water often get overwhelmed during periods of low rainfall, with commercial plantations owned by corporates being prioritised at the expense of smallholder and communal farmers in terms of water supply.

Out of reach

Commercial farming considerations often take precedence over other uses of water putting poorer farmers and villagers in direct competition with corporate entities for water.

The $9.45 charge per one million litres of water drawn from dams operated by ZINWA in the area places water out of reach for smaller farmers and ordinary villagers. Water is allocated to farmers who hold permits and those that do not have permits often use water illegally for irrigation. ZINWA permits give farmers the legal rights to use water. Big farmers buy water in advance and in times of low rainfall and they are prioritised in allocation in case of shortages.

Communal farmers concentrating on other farming activities other than sugarcane production are particularly disadvantaged as they are often left with little or no water to sustain agricultural activity during periods of little or no rainfall.

This has contributed to the creation and perpetuation of monoculture system in which sugarcane production is prioritised at the expense of food crops such as maize and sorghum. This is severely compromising the food security and livelihoods of communal farmers who desperately need irrigation to sustain agricultural activities in Zimbabwe’s drought prone lowveld.

Unfair practices

Despite the water shortage and other challenges being presented by monoculture in the sugarcane producing lowveld, government has not intervened to protect small farmers from exploitative and unfair practices of the big companies that enjoy a monopoly in the industry.

The developments in these communities are contrary to the 2010 the United Nations declaration of access to clean water as a basic human right. This means that governments must ensure that their citizens have access to clean water that is free from pollution.

Activities in these communities have put the government’s commitment to providing access to clean water for its citizens into question. Questions are being asked whether the legislation that governs water affairs is adequate to protect vulnerable communities in areas where there is exploitation of natural resources such as mining.

Affordable water

With ZINWA failing to ensure that poor communities access water at affordable rates and EMA failing to ensure water sources are not polluted, the plight of villagers in these communities will continue.

‘If there are water conflicts in the communities it is because of two things, either the companies are using more water than they should or the regulating Authority ZINWA is simply not monitoring water usage by these companies,’ said ZELA. Internal ZINWA sources who asked not to be identified said they suspected that companies were using more water than they were authorised. Most of these companies query their water consumption when bills are sent to them and ZINWA has now installed meters to monitor water consumption – but still the issue persists.

With communities feeling disempowered to confront the big corporate companies about their inequitable water usage regimes, the villagers in Chiredzi and Chiadzwa now pin their hopes on government to rectify the situation.

Post published in: Agriculture

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