Ordinary citizens pay hefty price for unsustainable investments

10 Jun, 2021

Written by Kennedy Nyavaya

UPDATE: This story was first published early in June 2021 and we have since then learned that ICBC has pulled out of the Sengwa coal plant project, which is a good step but they are still involved in the Hwange coal project.

For a visitor, it can be difficult to ignore an unsettling smell that emanates from the fumes produced by coal power stations, built into the heart of Hwange, a town in Zimbabwe’s Matebeleland North province.

Decades of toxic coal mining and energy production has not only altered the area’s air quality for the worst, but polluted the region’s water, soil and vegetation. 

Now, the remnants of huge mounds of coal dust have become one of the landscape’s defining features, as a rejuvenated coal exploration now threatens all that remains.

In 2018, the Hwange power station, the biggest coal-fired power facility in Zimbabwe, sought to add 600 megawatts (MW) to an initially installed capacity of 920 MW.

The $1.5 billion expansion project, set for completion by the end of this year, is being undertaken by a joint venture including the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) and the Chinese state-owned Sinohydro – financed largely by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

For ICBC – one of the world’s largest coal investors – the opportunity profits are clear, with massive, untouched domestic coal deposits and a desperate demand for reliable electricity across the country. 

More recently, the financial institution has taken an even bigger step towards creating a coal dependency in Zimbabwe, as they prepare to part with a further $USD 3 billion to finance a proposed 2,800 MW coal-fired power station in Gokwe North.

The cost of these investments, however, is being felt by those closest to it. 

“The way coal is being extracted is not environmentally friendly, one would expect that after extraction there has to be a rehabilitation plan, so that one couldn’t tell that there was mining taking place. But in the case of Hwange; you see trenches, smoke and so forth everywhere,” says Fidelis Chima, a representative of the Great Hwange Residents Trust.

Years of coal mining have left Hwange town immersed in coal dust, and according to Chima and local advocates, has caused a rise in respiratory ailments, and led to soil and water contamination. 

A part of the vast coal mining area in Hwange town, northwestern part of Zimbabwe. Photo © Kennedy Nyavaya

“I do not think as a nation we should be in a hurry to dig up all minerals available, mining should be sustainable, not encroach into other sectors or affect human welfare, that is not acceptable,” added Chima.

A stone’s throw away from the expanded Hwange Power Station sits Ingagula, a residential area accommodating scores of lower-grade ZPC workers, many who could be displaced from their homes due to the expansion project.

More than 400 households in downwind from the expansion project are reportedly at the risk of dangerous air pollution from the plant, and need to be relocated. The cost of this relocation is estimated at close to $USD 60 million. A cost that ZPC and its partners have no interest in paying. 

A similar fate in Dinde

Some 30 kilometers east of the power station, along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls road, you’ll find Dinde, a community also paying the cost of the country’s coal expansion. 

After mounting a campaign to save their community, hundreds of families in the rural settlement are now on the verge of displacement, and are being asked to make way for Beifa Investments (Pvt) Ltd a Chinese-owned start-up which was recently granted an expansive coal mining license across the region.

“We do not get anything from these investments, they [investors and politicians] are the ones who get the coal and benefit the profits. Our roads are a mess and we drink contaminated water, so there is no benefit at all for us,” said Barnabas Dube, a representative of the village association.

The mining company’s land covers over 4,000 hectares, and will lead to the displacement of over 4000 villagers, thousands of livestock and infrastructure including two schools and a hospital.

“A lot of people will be moved along with their belongings without clear explanation, or compensation. How can this be a fair investment?” quizzed Dube.

For Dinde’s villagers, their fate now seems synonymous with large scale coal projects across Zimbabwe that all too often disregard the lives, livelihoods and social harmony of those communities closest to them. 

Global pressure is shifting 

Meanwhile, a research expert with local lobby group Centre for Natural Resource Governance, Tapuwa O’Brien Nhachi, noted that as global pressure mounts for “huge disinvestment in fossil related energy”, Zimbabwe needs to urgently join in.

“We need to follow the trend and invest in sustainable and futuristic energy sources, our National Renewable Energy policy is clear on which path to take and it has listed potential energy sources to adopt, solar, wind, hydro to mention a few,” said Nhachi.

Unconfirmed reports recently suggested that ICBC was planning to pull out of its US $3 billion pledge to finance Sengwa power station, a 2,800-megawatt coal-fired power station in Gokwe North.

Although the bank has not confirmed if this is true at this stage, Nhachi hopes this is a sign of things to come.

“In South Africa, the major banks have pulled out of funding coal-fired plants,” said Nhachi. “It is a significant move by all the banks as they are under pressure not to finance independent coal power producers.”

According to him, the constant borrowing needed to fix, and expand coal-related assets like Hwange’s Thermal power plant has proven both ecologically costly, and a financial liability for Zimbabwe’s taxpayers. 

While ICBC’s investment in the Sengwa power station remains uncertain, I know that the villagers of Gokwe, and perhaps villagers across Zimbabwe will breathe a sigh of relief if ICBC confirms these rumours to be true.

About the author

Kennedy Nyavaya, Zimbabwe  

Kennedy is a multi-award winning, enterprising and hardworking communication practitioner with over half a decade of experience in mainstream media and public relations for civic organizations. In a journalism career spanning over half a decade, he has reported on various events, including those officiated by government officials and international diplomats and wrote different articles cutting across different topics, albeit with a keen interest in human rights, the environment and climate change.

He won Renewable Energy Reporter of the year 2020, Best ICT journalist 2018 (National Journalism and Media Awards), Sanitation and Hygiene journalist of 2018 (National Journalism and Media Awards).

This story was made possible through the support of Climate Tracker.