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Gold panners illegally divert water from Umzingwane Dam

Some gold panners in Umzingwane District in Matabeleland South are causing an environmental catastrophe by poaching soil from farming fields in the area and building artificial rivers by diverting water from Umzingwane Dam.

This has affected the flow of water into the dam which supplies water to Bulawayo.

These illegal activities are happening while Bulawayo residents have queried why the city’s supply dams in Matabeleland South are recording low statistical inflows despite the heavy rains.

The panners are also damaging farming fields and contaminating the dam with chemicals such as mercury as they conduct their mining activities.

In an interview with CITE, one of the farm owners next to Umzingwane Dam, Sukoluhle Hlongwane confirmed the gold panners had been digging top soil from her farm and ferrying it in scotch carts or trucks to where they make their makeshift rivers.

“I own Emangeni Farm and Umzingwane Dam flows through my farm. We noticed that gold panners have been stealing soil inside my farm, which they use to create makeshift water sources. They do this by diverting or blocking water from Umzingwane Dam to their rivers,” she said.

Hlongwane strongly suspected that the gold panners had also been building other artificial rivers at other dams in Matabeleland South.

“When the guards at the farm confronted the gold panners, they were threatened with machetes. The panners must be about 100 and we suspect they have roped in villagers as well because the scotch carts probably come from the locals,” said the farm owner.

She highlighted police had been approached, who referred her to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA).

“I always used to wonder why the catchment dams were not full and I suspect this must be one of the causes, which is why this has to be investigated,” Hlongwane said, adding that EMA officials visited the site last Friday.

Reached for comment, Matabeleland South EMA Provincial Manager, Decent Ndlovu, said the agency had taken note of the illegal activity and was liaising with the Bulawayo City Council and police for a robust approach.

“Last Friday, I tasked officials to attend the scene but the gold panners ran away, which is an indication that they know what they are doing is wrong. We raised this issue with the Parks Section of the Bulawayo City Council, as this involves one of their catchment areas and they noted this is a reoccurring problem. We will also vigorously engage with police from Hillside Police Station,” he said.

Umzingwane District Development Coordinator, Peter Mahlathini, also added that he would task his officials to immediately investigate the matter.

“At the moment, I am in Midlands and away from office but I will immediately call the Chief Executive Officer of the Umzingwane Rural District Council to investigate. This sounds critical and I will also be in touch with the officer in charge in Umzingwane to look into the matter,” he said.

Bulawayo mayor, Councillor Solomon Mguni, concurred that the city council was aware of the challenge.

“We heard that panners have been diverting water from the catchment areas around Umzingwane. This is not something new and it’s quite worrying. We have done similar operations before to close in on the panners, where our rangers work in conjunction with the police,” he said.

Clr Mguni said the council would continue efforts to stop the gold panners from causing further damage.

“The effects of panning are worrying as we are aware the panners also use mercury that contaminates the water,” said the Bulawayo mayor.

EMA’s Manager for environment and Education, Amkela Sidange, also buttressed that the issue of sand poaching warranted prosecution.  

“The issue of artificial embarkment falls under the purview of the Zimbabwe Water Authority (ZINWA) because they are the ones who deal with water provision. Then the abstraction of sand is illegal, as sand abstraction should be done with a license from a licensed point of view. The license is issued by the local authority and in this case it would be Umzingwane RDC,” she said.

“But we can’t run away from this issue, as people are doing an illegal activity that warrants prosecution.  We have been working with the police, conducting a blitz on sand poaching activities. For us as EMA, it critical to control the damage and such measures are a process, unlike those activities which damage the environment.”

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