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Zimbabwe, Marange: the pollution fallout from blood diamonds

Published on: 10/07/2012

Critics claim that the Zimbabwean government is failing to stop diamond mines from polluting village water supplies in Marange.

Residents claim that cattle have died drinking water from the Odzi River, downstream of the Marange diamond fields, Zimbabwe Photo: Andrew Mambondiyani

 

The Marange diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe have been an infamous example of so-called blood diamonds. The Mugabe regime has been accused of illegally diverting funds from the mines, which hold an estimated 25 per cent of the world’s diamond deposits, to bolster its oppressive security forces.

Now, the impoverished residents who live near the mines have another cause for concern. Cattle drinking water from the Odzi River downstream of diamond processing facilities have been dying, residents say. Numerous local officials and leaders of civic organizations contend that people who have bathed in the river have developed rashes and other skin ailments, and that other residents have grown ill after drinking river water.

Senior officials from one of the the mining companies denied that toxic waste was going into the river. The Environmental Management Agency (Ema) also stated that reports of pollution were false, saying that no chemicals were used to process the diamonds. "As far as we know the cases of livestock deaths in the area are drought-related”, said Ema’s provincial environmental manager Kingstone Chitotombe [1]. Until independent testing of river water and effluent from the processing plants is carried out, it will be difficult to link the mining and processing with the livestock deaths and illness of the villagers. One possible source of pollution could be ferrosilicon, which is used to process diamond-bearing gravel using a technology called dense medium separation, said mining expert Terry Kundidza.

He said that diamond ore was placed into a ferrosilicon mix, scrubbed, cleaned, and processed, while material that was no longer deemed profitable is dumped. At the end of each operation, the ferrosilicon is reclaimed from the process stream using a magnetic separator and recycled, but losses of ferrosilicon could occur, leading to contamination when the waste is discharged into water bodies, Kundidza said. “Ferrosilicon is a toxic and irritant substance, hazardous to human health,” said Kundidza. “Hence adequate protection is needed from accidentally inhaling or ingesting the material.”

Environmental laws in Zimbabwe are lax and not always strictly enforced. Diamond-mining companies are legally required to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment report before they can be granted licenses to operate, but some companies in Marange have failed to do so, according to Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management Francis Nhema. Currently, emission fees are are generally so small that it is cheaper fro companies to pay them than to invest in environmental protection equipment.

[1] Ema dismisses pollution reports, Daily News, 17 Mar 2012

Related news: Botswana: Bushmen to get access to water after long court battle, E-Source, 14 Jul 2011 Source: Andrew Mambondiyani, The Pollution Fallout From Zimbabwe’s Blood Diamonds, Yale Environment 360, 24 May 2012