Residents of Zambia’s Chinese-owned Collum coal mine in Sinazongwe, 325km south of the capital, Lusaka, may be drinking contaminated water, a MakanDay commissioned laboratory test has confirmed. Now the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (Zema) says its own investigation into the matter has been started.  

The report from the University of Zambia (UNZA) laboratory said, “on the day of sampling, the bacteriological quality of the water was bad”.

Enock Musonda, the laboratory technician who carried out the tests said the water does not meet the required standards of the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS), making it unsafe for people to drink.

“The water is not bad if it’s treated, it is a danger to the people drinking it because of the presence of bacteria and faecal matter,” he said.

He added that the best treatment is to use chlorine.

The ZABS was approached for comment, but said it cannot do so on tests done by another institution.

But a water quality expert from ZABS who is not authorised to speak to the media provided a brief analysis of the UNZA findings.

“From the results according to the standard - the water failed in the following tests, turbidity, iron, faecal coliforms, total coliforms,” he said. “These are very important quality parameters in water and when they fail, then the water is not good for consumption until treatment is done.”

The water from Nkadabbwe stream is shared with animals

Absent, inadequate, or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). This has raised questions about why the Zambia environmental management agency (ZEMA) is not protecting citizens.

Dr Douty Chibamba Zema director general, has asked for more time to investigate the matter before providing MakanDay with a comprehensive response.

“The Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) is in receipt of your letter of inquiry regarding the activities of the mine… and has been engaged in the investigation of the matter,” said Dr Chibamba in a letter to MakanDay.

Cry from the residents

The water which residents use for cooking, drinking, cleaning and irrigating their crops is from Nkadabbwe stream which flows through the mine. The residents allege that their wells and boreholes are equally contaminated.

Headman Siamajela who has lived all his life in the area told MakanDay that he had hoped the Chinese investors would improve the water challenges in the area.

“When the Chinese investors came to our area, we were very hopeful that not only would they provide jobs to our people, but our lives would improve for the better,” he said.

He noted that surprisingly, his people still draw water from Nkadabbwe stream, which they share with domestic animals. He alleges that the mine has been spilling toxic chemicals into the water sources.

“Most people have running stomachs almost every day as we also share the same water with livestock, so we have not benefited much from this mining company,” he added.

Collum coal mine said in a statement, the company has drilled three boreholes to address the water challenges in the area. Charles Nindiwe, Collum Coal Mining Industries Limited Directors’ Technical Advisor said the mine also provides drinking water to communities surrounding the four operating shafts.

Danger signs

According to the Patent and Companies Registration (Pacra) records, Collum coal mine was registered in 2000. It has five Chinese directors.

The mine in question has never been far from controversy.

In 2012, a Zambian miner was charged with the murder of a Chinese supervisor at the mine. In 2010, Chinese managers were accused of firing on protesting miners.

The residents are now accusing the mine of polluting their water and destroying the environment.

Black trees

Danger signs are visible along the perimeter boundary of the mine to warn residents whose villages border the mine.

“The mineshafts are our neighbours, there is noise pollution and our food and homes are always dusty,” said Julia Somba, a local resident. “We eat dusty food and we have coughs that don’t heal.”

Sonda said when they complain to management at the mine, they are told to leave their villages. 

Alex Simapoyu, a resident of Siamajele told MakanDay that the three villages – Chiyabi, Siamajele and Siamugande are very close to the underground mineshafts.

“I’m appealing to the Ministry of Mines to come to Collum coal mine and see for themselves if this is how we are supposed to be living, so close to the mine,” he said.

Collum’s response

Workers at the entrance of the mine

Collum mine’s Charles Nindiwe said water is normally sprayed to make sure the coal loaded onto trucks is wet to prevent dust at loading bays.

“The company has a water bowser which sprays water for dust suppression along all access routes and accessible working areas,” said Nindiwe.

It is not safe for Collum coal mine to continue mining coal in a community where people are living.

Expert view

According to an expert in mining, who asked to remain anonymous, the best course of action is to make sure that the residents are transferred to safe regions before lives are lost. 

He said: “Mining comes with problems of surface subsidence, which is the movement of the ground that can occur during the process of opening spaces underground”.

“After coal is extracted from beneath the ground, the land above can sink and fill the hollow mine workings, which can be very dangerous to the people living very close to the area,” he said.

In 2016, the Centre for Trade Policy and Development (CTPD) advised Government to formulate legislation to address mineral revenue sharing mechanisms to protect the lives of people living in mining communities.

The expert told MakanDay that the proposed mineral revenue sharing mechanism can act as a form of compensation by ensuring that a percentage of the mineral royalty tax remitted by mining companies is retained by the host communities that are often negatively affected by mining activities.

The mine’s contribution to local communities, includes building a 40-bed space girls’ dormitory and two class roomed-blocks at Nkandabbwe School and Chamukwapulo Primary.