By Joyce Joliga
Mbinga. Residents of Ruanda Village in Mbinga District of Ruvuma are living with fears of health risks after it was discovered that they consume water from the rivers surrounding the coal mines, which is suspected to contain acid and sulphur.
For a long time, the residents have been complaining of diseases such as diarrhoea, as well as women suffering from frequent miscarriages.
They also complained about fish dying in the rivers and Lake Nyasa and called on experts to test the water so they could identify the problem.
Ruvuma regional water quality services manager Getrude Payovela admits that it has been a long time since residents surrounding the coal mines have been in that situation.
She says that they have tested the water and confirmed it has plenty of sulphur chemicals that have made the water highly acidic.
She cites long-term consequences of using such water, including lung cancer and typhoid fever, which can affect those living within the vicinity of the mine.
She further clarified that they have already advised the management of the coal mine to build dams so that the contaminated water does not flow towards the rivers but the challenge is that during the rainy season, the dams are flooded. According to her, the water flowing into the river is dangerous for the people living in the area, many of whom use the water for various household activities, drinking, washing, cooking and feeding animals.
“The effects that can be experienced by the people of these areas are long-term including lung cancer and diarrhoea. So, I advise them to try to avoid using water that comes from the rivers around the coal mines and instead use water from the local wells, especially after treating or boiling,” she says.
She also advised the village leadership to go to the offices of the water supply and sanitation agency to lodge their grievances so that the authority could find alternative sources of water that is clean and friendly for home use and to build a water project for them.
According to her, the miners were advised to ensure that the water polluted by their activities does not go into water sources like lake and rivers because other than affecting the people it also affects biodiversity.
“The people should have talks with their leaders to make them understand the challenge they are facing so as to find a solution while in the meantime they continue to boil water,” she says.
For his part, Philemon Kinyangazi, an expert at the regional water quality testing office, says it was imperative the government drilled water wells in the villages because water contaminated by coal contains high level of sulphur.
He says since the extraction of coal began in the area, diseases caused by dust have increased for the residents of the surrounding villages.
A resident of Ruanda village, Ms Rehema Nchimbi, says she has experienced different changes since the start of coal extraction in the area.
“Since the extraction started we have experienced many challenges including fish dying in rivers and in the Lake Nyasa and although the residents were advised not to consume the dead fish, still some people have been using them for stew without understanding the health implications,” she says.
She says there are people who have developed bloated stomachs, vomiting and diarrhoea, especially those who dug wells close to the mines, where they used water from wells mixed with coal.
She noted that children have developed coughs and they have to spend a lot of money for treatment while pregnant women have also developed frequent coughs, typhoid and babies are born with various problems.
“We call on the government to help us control the problem so that our health can improve,” she says.
Another resident, Mr Silvas Haule, says the dust was caused by coal transported through the roads without sprinkling water to reduce the dust while at the same time the vehicles used are not properly sealed so they dump coal dust on the road and cause serious damage to the people.
Responding to the complaints, the production manager of Tancoal which operates the Ngaka coal mine, Mr Edward Mwanga, admitted that the roads were not sprayed with water to reduce the dust.
He says they try to use water before transporting the coals but the challenge was other mines that operate coal.
“There are days we don’t transport coal, but we get calls that people have closed the roads due to the dust and when we go to inspect we find other companies are transporting coal without sprinkling water on the roads,” he says.
For his part, the Medical Officer in Charge of the Ruanda Mission Hospital in Mbinga District, Dr Yuvent Laurent, admitted that there are patients who arrive at the hospital with problems caused by drinking water containing chemicals derived from coal dust.
“We have received women who miscarried but I don’t have the exact figures. We also have diarrhoea cases from drinking contaminated water. Others have developed lung problems, heart problems, and brain problems, among others,” he says.
He says the general effects of carbon dioxide emissions or the use of water mixed with coal, have short-term and long-term effects including people getting allergies and frequent coughs.
He says long-term effects include lung-related diseases that are associated with asthma, cancer, heart disease, brain disorders due to the chemicals contained in charcoal.
The Ruanda Ward Councillor, Mr Dogras Mwingira, also admitted that coal is indeed toxic especially when its particles enter the water and cause pollution.
He says they were yet to record any deaths although they have set up committees to monitor the number of people affected.
The Deputy Minister of State, in the President’s Office, responsible for Union and Environment, Mr Hamad Chande, directed Tancoal Mine and Ruvuma Coals Mine officials to prevent the contaminated water from going to water sources, farms or human settlements to protect the people’s health and have a safe environment as the coal contains chemicals that are harmful to humans.
“The National Environmental Management Council (Nemc) should strive to conduct regular inspections at least twice or once a month in these mines to ensure that compliance with environmental law is sustainable.”
Mr Chande called on Nemc to monitor implementation of the Environment Act 2004. “Although the investors are allowed to continue with economic activities, they should also be tasked to protect the environment as per the government’s directives and legal requirements,” he says.
“Human health is a great asset, do your best to make sure you solve the problems complained about by the people and reduce dust by sprinkling water on the road and stop dumping coal on the road. Our environment is important,” he says.
He also instructed the coal mines to have a sustainable plan to restore land to its original state immediately after the extraction is completed. Contacted, Mr Edward Mwanga says they have been trying to take precautions throughout the mining process, including trying to comply with environmental laws to protect the health of the people.
He says it is not true that they are dumping chemical water into the river.
Referring to coal production, he says it has declined from 700,000 tonnes to 200,000 tonnes per year due to the existence of other coal producers while consumers are the same cement factories.
He promised that they will make sure they stay with the Mbinga district government and will put in place arrangements and allocation of drainage areas to reduce dust to the people of neighbouring villages during transportation and remove the nuisance.
The acting environmental officer for Mbinga District Council, Mr Salum Said, explained the efforts and steps they have been taking to control dust in the coal mining areas and that they planned to bring together all coal mining companies led by Tancoal to find out what can be done to reduce the dust. He says coal mining operations are being carried out and the biggest environmental challenge they face is dust.