Given that Zimbabwe, and just Africa in general is disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change, all of which have resulted in the loss of lives and devastated communities and the economy of the country, one wonders the logic behind investing in coal power plants.
The memories of the climate-induced Cyclone Idai, which left 340 people confirmed dead and hundreds missing, leaving a trail of destruction which rendered more than 51,000 people homeless and affecting a total of 270,000 people is still fresh in people minds. At a time when everyone would assume that Zimbabwe would take a leading role in investing in a sustainable future, considering the climate risks that the country faces, the Government of Zimbabwe is giving a nod to a U$3 billion thermal power plant at Gokwe’s Sengwa.
The Dark History of Coal Mining in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s coal sector has always been controversial given Hwange Colliery’s history since its inception in 1899. Dispossession, forced displacements, forced labour, deaths, ill-health and the native people’s struggles for survival sums up the sad story of coal mining and combustion in the country. From widows of the 1972 Hwange (formerly Wankie) Coal Mine disaster who are yet to receive compensation from the company for the deaths of their spouses, to the current struggles for water justice for Hwange residents, of which case is still pending in the courts marks the reality of coal-driven energy systems in Zimbabwe. While the local people paid the cost of coal extraction with their lives, Hwange coal powered the industries, railway networks and mines for capital accumulation for the colonial administration, later powering the residential areas of the rich elites. The natives only benefitted from the generated electricity through street lighting which was actually a mechanism of policing the natives and monitoring their night time activities, while the people lived in energy poverty despite the devastation of the coal power plants on their lives and well-being.
The poor peasants and the working class in Zimbabwe continue to live in energy poverty as rural electrification stands at less than 20% (included in this figure is the electrification of commercial farms and mines which fall under the Rural District Councils’ jurisdiction), 98% of women in Zimbabwe’s rural areas still use firewood, dung and biomass for cooking. 66.67% of Zimbabweans live in rural areas, in energy poverty, and one would imagine why the community of Gokwe should accept to host a coal fired power plant.
Why we should invest in Renewables
Instead of investing in the Sengwa coal power plant, Zimbabwe should transition to renewable energy sources, and work towards closing down the existing coal mines and coal power plants. Multilateral Development Banks like the World Bank, African Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank, and governments like the UK, Netherlands and Germany have put in place policies towards halting coal projects financing. The reason being that the idea of cheap energy from coal has been discredited. Coal plants do not pay the environmental, social and often the political costs of mining and burning coal. Communities hosting coal fired power plants the world over are pushing back on dirty energy sources, resulting in conflicts and civil unrest which lead to political tensions.
Coal is a huge threat to public health. Coal pollution produces Sulphur dioxide which penetrates into human lungs and associated with bronchitis, asthma, and acid rain which results in crop failure and damage to the ecosystem; nitrogen oxides which cause harm to lungs, making people prone to chronic respiratory diseases; mercury which is toxic and damages the nervous, immune and digestive systems; soot (particulate matter) which is associated with cardiovascular conditions like heart attacks and premature deaths. Other harmful pollutants produced by coal are lead and other toxic heavy metals, carbon monoxide, arsenic and volatile organic compounds.
Coal power plants are heavy consumers of water, a resource which Zimbabwe does not have in abundance. As a result of climate change, Zimbabwe faced its worst drought in 40 years during the 2018/19 agricultural season. More than 5.5 million peasant farmers in the country faced near, and total crop failure making more than 50% of the population in need of food aid. However, the World Food Programme estimates that more people in urban areas are going to be in need of food aid as compared to those living in rural areas. The maize harvest for 2019 was only 50% of the 2018 leaving a huge gap in terms of what the country needs for survival. 1.2 million of the people in need of food aid live in the areas bordering Zimbabwe and Zambia whose food security classification of IPC 4 emergency levels often associated with conflict. Consecutive years of droughts have sapped people’s ability to bounce back. In 2015, 30% of people living in rural areas in need of food aid, this rose to 42% in 2016, then to 51% in 2018 and in 2019 the figure stands at 59% of the people living in rural areas needing food aid in order to survive. This trend does not support the idea of another coal power plant in Zimbabwe.
What must be done
It is acknowledged that Zimbabwe, and the majority of African countries, has the lowest carbon emissions globally, and that climate change is an equity issue as the world’s poorest people, who have contributed the least to climate change are disproportionately affected by climate change. These disparities, however, cannot be addressed by investing in dirty energy sources like coal as it destroys the resilience of the hosting communities to climate change. Instead of investing in the Sengwa coal power plant, the Government of Zimbabwe should work divesting from coal and all new investors must invest in renewable energy systems. Zimbabwe has huge solar potential which remains untapped, with the Northern and Western regions of Zimbabwe having the highest irradiation potential, but only 1% of the country’s solar potential has been harnessed. There is substantial hydropower potential in the country, without even the need to invest in mega hydropower plants which are both environmentally and socially unsustainable. As the country moves toward transitioning to clean energy, the Government of Zimbabwe should protect the jobs of those employed in the coal sector through developing their skills in alternative industries in the regions affected by coal power plants closures. Transitioning to clean energy is necessary and the country should work on a mechanism to ensure the stranded assets like the power stations and coal mines are decommissioned in a way which ensures justice and equity.