BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE – It is a sunny afternoon, and Margaret Noko’s heap of clothes is difficult to ignore. She needs to do the wash.
“I have to use the water I have stored in containers and refill them,” says Noko, a domestic worker in Emakhandeni, a dense suburb outside of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. “The water situation in the city is highly unpredictable.”
It’s not drought or climate change she blames for Bulawayo’s unreliable water supply. Residents and city officials alike are increasingly pointing to illegal gold panning as the root of the problem.
“Bulawayo is often hit by water shortages due to reduced storage capacity of dams supplying the city with water,” says Simela Dube, the city’s director of engineering services. “This has been worsened by illegal gold panning activities near the dam.”
Gold panning sometimes involves digging by riverbanks and riverbeds, resulting in fine soil, or silt, being discharged into the river system – called siltation. Soon these rivers and water reservoirs become clogged with silt, until less and less water can be drawn.
Bulawayo depends on the Matabeleland South province as its water catchment area. The area is home to five working supply dams: Umzingwane, Upper Ncema, Lower Ncema, Inyankuni and Mtshabezi. In addition to the water supply, the area also is home to a high concentration of gold deposits.
According to the local authority’s October report, the dams are at 37% capacity.
The Zimbabwe National Water Authority also blames the low water supply on siltation from gold panning.
Gold panners often are aware of the environmental risk they pose.
“Most of us know the damage our activities cause to water bodies,” says Hector Muriwo, a gold panner in Esigodini. “But we are also trying to feed our families by panning.”
The impacts of small-scale gold mining are of increasing concern to authorities, including the Bulawayo City Council, the Environmental Management Agency and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority. For some, the first step is having the unregistered gold panners apply for a license with the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development so they can be tracked.
“There is need for illegal gold panners to be registered as this will be easy for us to deal with them when they mine near water bodies,” says Dube, the Bulawayo official.
There are no plans to reduce siltation or increase water levels in dams. Residents say they are hoping for a fruitful rainy season.
In the meantime, Noko will have to continue to fill containers with water in order to get the laundry done.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some of the interviews from IsiNdebele.