Thousands of poor Zimbabweans have turned to illegal panning for precious minerals, but environmental and water experts say their activities are contributing to the drying up of rivers which many communities rely on for their livelihoods.
“Siltation of rivers is becoming endemic in the country, particularly in regions where there is acute illegal panning of minerals, especially gold. Rivers have been reduced to rivulets,” said the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) in a November 2011 statement aimed at drawing attention to the country's "dying rivers and water bodies" and their impact on downstream communities.
Illegal gold mining is common along rivers that run close to the Great Dyke, a hilly mineral-rich belt which cuts across most of the country, and is concentrated in Mashonaland Central, West, East and Midlands provinces. Diamond panning is associated with the Chiadzwa District of Manicaland.
According to John Robertson, a Harare-based economic consultant, people began turning to gold panning in large numbers in the early 1990s when the country was hit by poor harvests due to droughts and job layoffs resulting from the government's economic structural adjustment programme.
“The damage caused by illegal mining is enormous. It is a vicious cycle as people are taking to panning in order to earn a living, but in the end their activities are causing untold degradation,” Robertson told IRIN.
Monica Mapeka, a 24-year-old single mother of two from rural Murewa District, about 100km northeast of Harare, the capital, regularly visits the banks of Mazowe river, a tributary of the River Zambezi which passes through the area, in search of alluvial gold. Armed with a pick, shovel and container, and clad in muddy overalls, she joins hundreds of other illegal gold panners popularly known as `makorokoza’ in digging up the riverbed.
From dusk until dawn, she and two other women work together to mix the earth they have dug up with water and move it in circular motions in containers until they are left with small quantities of mud containing shiny yellow particles of alluvial gold.
“On a lucky day, we get something like two ounces that we sell for US$40 and share the money. If you work hard enough, it’s easy to get rich,” said Mapeka. “We are single mothers and have to do something to fend for our children and other members of the extended family, otherwise we will starve and walk in rags."
In an effort to concentrate their yield, the `makorokoza’ often mix the residual ore with mercury, a practice that Steady Kangata, the education and publicity manager for the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), said created a health hazard for people and animals downstream.
“Mercury has the tendency to accumulate in the bodies of animals and humans who consume it, and in the case of people, if it gathers to a certain level, it can cause hair loss and the breakdown of the nervous system,” he said.
In recent decades, Mairosi Mangwende, 60, also from Murewa, has witnessed Mazowe river degenerate from a fast-flowing waterway which was too deep to cross during the raining season, to a muddy trickle. The activities of the illegal miners have marked the river bed with deep holes and gullies where the water collects in small rivulets that quickly dry up. The large amount of soil they dig up is eventually washed away by rain, silting up the river downstream.
“Almost throughout the year, we would get fish to eat at home and sell but that is no longer the case,” said Mangwende. “The cattle and goats are suffering because they cannot drink this muddy water.”
He added that households used to own as many as 50 cattle, but that it had become rare for a family to have even eight beasts, partly because of the scarcity of drinking water for livestock.
Vegetable gardens that used to dot the river banks had also virtually disappeared, said Mangwende, and households could no longer rely on the income they earned from selling produce from riverside gardens.
Zimbabwe's largest river, the River Save, which flows east towards Mozambique and the Indian Ocean, is another victim of illegal mining. Diamond mining at Chiadzwa, where thousands flocked after the discovery of alluvial diamonds in 2005, has contributed to the drying up of the river and the many communal livelihood activities it supported such as gardening, smallholder irrigation projects and bricklaying.
ZINWA has called for stiffer penalties for illegal mining and urged greater joint action with the mines ministry, EMA and the Wildlife Management Authority, while EMA has carried out joint operations with the police to arrest the illegal panners.
According to Mapeka, such efforts have had little effect: “There is so much poverty and some of these police officers take bribes to let us continue.”
According to a 2010 report on climate change vulnerability and adaptation preparedness in Southern Africa commissioned by the German organization, Heinrich Böll Stiftung, rising temperatures and droughts are also playing a role in the drying up of Zimbabwe's rivers.
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The report predicted that rates of evapo-transpiration from river basins will continue to increase as temperatures rise while runoff was projected to decline, with the Zambezi Basin the worst affected.
“It is often the case that when people’s livelihoods are threatened, as has happened in the case of rivers running dry, they tend to look for alternative survival opportunities that the environment can provide,” said Unganai. “For instance, they invade the forests and cut down trees, leading to deforestation that in turn causes massive runoff that further silts up the rivers.”
Robertson said siltation was reducing water volumes in downstream dams and would eventually affect agriculture. “We still have commercial farming activities that are fed by existing dams but siltation will finally affect them, leading to hundreds of families losing their sources of income when breadwinners lose their jobs,” he told IRIN.
Communities that have been heavily dependent on rivers for their livelihoods need to be helped to look for other sources of income away from the river courses, said William Nduku of the Forum for Environmental Education.
“Faced by dying rivers, the best option is to relocate livelihood activities from those water bodies to the homesteads through the provision of communal water points such as boreholes which can be effective in communal or smallholder market gardening while also providing water for livestock and other uses," he said.