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HomeNewsWill Hwange Become Zim’s Next Ghost Town? As World Moves Away From Fossil Fuels

Will Hwange Become Zim’s Next Ghost Town? As World Moves Away From Fossil Fuels

One of the major outcomes from the climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland last year was the bold call by world leaders to phase out coal as a source of energy – a more radical stance from the past positions of advocating for a reduction in its usage.

The other notable commitment was ending public financing and subsidies for fossil fuels to cut on emissions.

But for Ncobeni  Lupondo (72) a resident of Mpumalanga township in the coal-rich town of Hwange, northern Zimbabwe this has brought mixed feelings.

“Coal has been a blessing and a curse to us,” she told 263Chat.

Lupondo has lived here all her life and witnessed the ups and downs of this resource town.

During her youthful days, she was once contracted by the local coal company-Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL/ Hwange Colliery) for a few months.

“This town was built because of coal deposits located across this entire district and has gone through some exciting times when coal used to be an essential commodity but things are changing, the town is slowly dying and the company no longer employs many people anymore, A lot of former and current workers are still owed large sums of money,” she adds.

Hwange Colliery literally owns the town of Hwange having embarked on its first coal mining expedition in the area in 1902 following the discovery of coal in 1895. Everything else thereafter was then influenced by growth of the company.

The company doubles as a local authority offering water and reticulation services, health service, housing and waste collection to the town on top of its core mining activities.

In 2015, HCCL announced plans to sell Hwange town for US$ 300 million and its 5 000 housing units to squeeze its way out of a financial crisis exacerbated by legacy debts of up to US$ 160 million.

To compound matters, production levels have drastically fallen due to obsolete equipment.

Last year, only 305 679 tonnes of coal was delivered to Hwange Power Station down from annual production of 6 million tonnes at its peak in 1994.

Staff levels have tumbled to just 2 000 and the company’s under-utilized housing units are failing to attract private home seekers as the town is no longer economically vibrant.

The yester-year population boom buoyed by economic growth in the town is now a thing of the past.

According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) Matabeleland North province district population projects report released in 2020, Hwange district will have one of the slowest population growths in the province compared to other districts.

From 31 637 males in the district in 2012, Hwange male population will grow by just 10 000 people or 31 percent in the next 20 years just as females will grow from 32 856 in 2012 to 43 192 by 2032- another 31 percent increase.

In contrast, Binga district male population of 65 710 in 2012 will grow by 79 percent to 117 789 by 2032 and its female population will grow 77 percent from 77 412 in 2012 to 136 746 by 2032.

At the Colliery’s low density suburb, originally built to house mine artisans during its boom years, the neighborhood is today largely deserted, creating scenes of a ghost town in the making.

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“These are houses once occupied by respectable artisans at the mine. All that is left are empty structures and it scares us a lot. Maybe one day this neighborhood will be completely deserted,” she says.

One of several abandoned mansions at the Colliery Low Density Suburb that once housed mining professionals turning into a ghost tow. Pic by Kudzanai Gerede.

Indeed one cannot be crucified for flirting with the idea of Hwange becoming a ghost town one day.

Behind the Colliery number 1 township lies debris from the old mine shaft that has seized to operate.

Adjacent to it, is an old railway line leading to nowhere and next to it are tens of old rail wagon wheels scattered all over the place that used to carry coal to the processing plant.

The old plant itself is a sight of death. Lifeless, almost completely covered by thick bushes at the base and visible at the top are rusting metals trusses being consumed by the teeth of time.

Abandoned rail wagon wheels, remnants of a once efficient transport system that ferried coal to various markets. Behind are coal waste heaps. Pic by Kudzanai Gerede.

These are sights very much akin to what one will be greeted with when they go to places like the once vibrant Zisco Steel and its Redcliff town, Gath’s Mine in Mashava, Mhangura and Alaska- all turned ghost towns after mining activities waned.

Depressed coal prices, poor corporate management and aging equipment dragged down HCCL operations over decades and now a huge cloud of uncertainty looms large over the future of coal mining in the town.

Of course Zimbabwe is not yet ready to transition to cleaner energy for all its needs, at least in the next decade or so but nevertheless, global efforts to phase out coal are firming and the worsening climate extremes are a big cause for concern.

In 2018, the company went under judicial management to enable implementation of its turnaround strategy.

In its Half-Year 2021 financial statement, HCCL posted a net loss of ZWL 538.76 million in historical terms. The net loss is a result of ZWL 258.05 million exchange losses on foreign legacy debts and deferred tax of ZWL 441.15 million.

As part of its turnaround strategy, HCCL sees neighboring South Africa which is also Africa’s most industrialized economy as a lucrative market to export its coal.

However, hopes have been dashed by the dangling of a US$ 8.5 billion handout to South Africa from the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union to finance a quicker transition from coal to renewable smart energy that will provide a model for other countries.

South Africa has already committed to commence the transition and it is now highly unlikely that it will look to Hwange for coal.

Coal operations at the coal processing plant were production is steadily increasing.

Experts say it’s a question of when will Zimbabwe’s own transition begin and what should be done to preserve such a big town like Hwange from being another ghost mining town.

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“There are possibilities to do hydro power along Zambezi which is near Hwange. Here we are talking about a just transition that should not negatively affect the workers and the economy of Hwange. That should be a managed transition over years,” said Byron Zamasiya, Natural Resources Economist at the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA).

According to Zimbabwe’s Low Emission Strategy (LEDS) 2020-2050 it intends to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent which identifies with mitigation actions to help keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, in reality its doing quite the opposite following the construction of two additional units 7 and 8 expected to be completed mid-year 2022 that will add 600MW onto the national grid to address power shortages in the country.

It remains to be seen if the country will meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets when there is a conflict between what it states as policy and the position it takes.

Recently, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) chair, Sydney Gata told local editors that Zimbabwe had put a proposal to buy coal power plants from European countries that have since abandoned coal production and set them up locally to generate more electricity.

However, due to global pressure to end financing of coal projects the Chinese partners lost appetite in bank-rolling it pretty much in line with President Xi Jinping announcement at the UN General Assembly last year that China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.”

To attest to this promise,gold mining frim, RioZim recently revealed that its 2 800 MW Sengwa Coal Power Project had hit a brick wall after the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) backtracked on its commitment to finance the US$ 3 billion coal-fired power plant citing environmental problems.

Then there is also the question of what will happen to the massive coal resource.

“There is an option of investing in clean coal technology but for a country like Zimbabwe this is not sustainable as it will increase unit cost per kilowatt-hour which Zimbabwe cannot afford,” said Zamasiya.

On the ground, there are no signs of winding up on coal production within Hwange districts.

The government has however issued several Chinese companies with permits to embark on projects in the last few years, amid commitments by Chinese government to cut funding.

“These Chinese companies are not resuscitating our town; there is no development or sustainability being brought here. Once they are done mining we will be left with massive open pits,” said Mongi Sibindi a local resident.

Levels of pollution are high, he says, such that the effects of heavy dust landing on vegetation have even affected yields at a local irrigation scheme.

“At Lukosi irrigation Scheme we have been witnessing poor yields due to this pollution from the miners. The dust also affects Lukosi primary school and Lukosi hospital.”

Last year, the Hwange community petitioned another Chinese coal miner, Zimbabwe Zhongxin Coking Company (ZZCC), over the effects of pollution caused by shunting trucks carrying coke from the plant to the markets.

“Mining models that are being done nowadays are instead extractive and exploitative as they have a complete disregard about the welfare and the future of locals especially here in Hwange,” said Hwange Central Constituency legislator, Daniel Molokele.

“We want a mining concept that worries more about the future and not that which only seeks profit,” he added.

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