The Sunday Mail
Alarm as ditches turn into death traps
IT is almost a year since Gogo Mavis Nzara lost her three grandchildren, but she still finds it difficult to talk about the events that led to the unfortunate incident.
The 68-year-old was left traumatised when her minor grandchildren drowned in an abandoned water-logged pit close to their home in Mayambara, Chitungwiza.
On the fateful day, Gogo Nzara had gone to gather firewood in the company of the minors.
While she was busy, her grandchildren went to play in a disused pit.
“The pit came about as a result of sand poaching, and during the rainy season, it stores water,” said Gogo Nzara before she started weeping.
“I heard weird noises from a distance and immediately knew something was wrong. I rushed to the scene, only to find my grandchildren drowning.
“They kept shouting for help, but I failed to save them. By the time fellow villagers came, it was too late. I keep remembering what happened, and I am failing to heal.”
The terrible event left many in shock and equally reminded the public and the authorities of the dangers posed by pits being created through sand poaching and other illegal mining activities.
Increased construction activities around the country — both legal and illegal — have led to massive demand for sand, a crucial component in the building industry.
Sand is vital for almost every aspect of construction since it gives strength and stability to materials like concrete, mortar, asphalt and cement.
Residents of Mucheke and Rujeko in Masvingo have raised alarm over deep trenches that have become a common sight in their areas.
The pits created by illegal sand miners have become death traps for both humans and animals. Children who frequent the sites for pastime activities are the most at risk.
“Sand poachers have become a thorn in the flesh for us. They do not even seek permission from the residents. The situation has gone out of hand such that we now fear our houses may collapse since they are invading our yards. The situation is terrifying, especially during the rainy season,” said Mucheke-based Peter Matarikwa.
Poachers are invading riverbeds and any other areas that have sand which can be used for construction. In the process, they are causing massive land degradation.
Conservationists are of the view that such illegal activities, including gold panning, need to be stopped to save the environment.
Ordinarily, registered companies are permitted by the relevant authorities to collect sand from designated areas.
The places are then rehabilitated after excavation.
However, daring sand poachers are wantonly destroying the environment, with some even desecrating cemeteries. A typical example is the Zinyengere Cemetery in Epworth, where coffins and human remains have been left exposed.
Along Chitungwiza Road, areas around Chinhamo and Mvurachena are now in a sorry state. It is the same case in some parts of Waterfalls.
In Seke rural, Masango village, sand poachers are destroying wetlands as they dig for sand. The sand poachers start work from as early as 4am.
Daily, there is a lot of activity as men and women mine sand and load it into huge lorries, most of which are clearly not roadworthy.
The mining sites have become an eyesore.
Judging by the size of the pits, one can easily tell that the illegal sand extraction activities have been going on for a longer period.
Trying to stop the culprits from their illegal activities has in some instances proved fatal.
To salvage the situation, the Epworth Local Board had to move in to fill the pits with garbage.
However, residents feel punitive measures should be introduced to curb the menace.
“They (poachers) started from an open space, which is not under the residents’ control, before moving into residential areas, giving us more reason to worry,” said a Chitungwiza resident, only identified as Chengetai,.
The area around Kutsaga, on the outskirts of Harare, is also under siege.
The farm is situated on the upper catchment area of a river basin, which feeds Kutsaga water bodies. This leaves downstream waterways prone to siltation.
In Gweru, sand poaching is rampant at the aerodrome, Ngamo Dam and Vungu areas, which are on the outskirts of the city.
Harare Residents Trust director Precious Shumba shared his sentiments.
“We are now in the rainy season. These pits store water, putting people’s lives in danger,” he said.
“By-laws need to be reviewed and such activities should be criminalised as the effects are far-reaching. They are causing deforestation and the emergence of huge pits almost everywhere, posing danger to residents and their families.
“The authorities need to act promptly on what is happening across Harare and the country at large. The rainy season is upon us and these pits could be huge death traps.”
According to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), at least 1 098 hectares of land in Harare had been degraded by June this year.
However, there is an ongoing exercise to establish the magnitude of damage that has been caused through sand poaching.
“From the massive exercise that we are conducting, we are expecting to uncover a higher number of hectares of land that have been damaged since we noted that more of these activities have emerged over the recent past,” said EMA spokesperson Ms Amkela Sidanke.
The agency also notes that illegal activities are causing siltation.
Licensed sand miners are equally concerned and feeling the heat.
“As licensed miners, it no longer makes business sense; we should be selling a load of pit or river sand for US$100 (for a five-tonne truck) but due to unfair competition from sand poachers, we are being forced to sell at US$70, which is not viable,” said Munemo Construction Company director Mr Clever Jimu.
Cat and mouse games have become the order of the day between sand poachers and the authorities.
“I need to provide for my family. However, I understand that I need to acquire a licence. This is one of my top priorities next year,” said one of the illegal sand miners, who only identified himself as Jasper.
Licensing and regulation
According to EMA, sand mining should only be conducted by licensed extractors.
“No person shall excavate, remove, possess or license the removal of clay or sand deposit for commercial purposes without a licence by the EMA,” reads Statutory Instrument (SI) 7 of 2007 of the Environment Management Act (Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems Protection).
However, EMA can mandate local authorities to license potential sand miners.
The SI further states that it is the responsibility of councils to set aside designated areas for sand abstraction within their jurisdictions and also ensure the mining activities are properly regulated.
Ms Sidanke urges anyone who wishes to excavate sand or clay to first seek clearance for either sand extraction or sand transportation.
But the applicant must first consult their local authority for designated land from where the extraction will be conducted.
Local inspectors, together with the applicant, then come up with a detailed excavation and environmental rehabilitation/management plan for the site for consideration by the agency before extraction.
A standard sand extraction point should measure 20 metres by 20 metres.
Furthermore, only registered companies and small and medium enterprises are authorised to apply for sand mining licences.
“Sand poaching is illegal and we have established that most culprits are unlicensed and not employed by any registered company. The mining activities should be regulated by the authorities and frequent inspections conducted,” said Ms Sidanke.
“Sand is a natural resource under the jurisdiction of a local authority. We are overwhelmed with reports of sand poaching. This derails some of the sustainable economic and environmental development activities.”
She added that EMA is in the process of coming up with provisions for punishing both the illegal supplier of sand and the buyer.
The rehabilitation of land after extraction enables it not to lose value.
But due to rampant sand poaching, most pieces of land in major cities have been devalued.
“We encourage local authorities to register all those who are into sand mining and the transporters as well because they are key in the drive to end this,” said EMA.
The relevant authorities (councils, EMA and law-enforcement agents) are set to embark on a major blitz to curb the sand poaching menace.
Harare City Council head of corporate communications Mr Stanley Gama notes the planned move will restore sanity.
The blitz will be conducted in compliance with EMA statutes and municipal by-laws.
“We are aware of what is happening around communities, especially the area between Harare and Chitungwiza. We are moving in to enforce the law so as to fight this problem,” said Mr Gama.
“Arrests will be made based on our by-laws. Such operations have been conducted before but the culprits keep coming back, so we have decided to intensify our action. These activities are degrading our environment, hence the need to address them.”
Six gold panners and sand poachers were recently arrested in Bulawayo in a joint crackdown by the Bulawayo City Council and the Zimbabwe Republic Police.
Wheelbarrows, pushcarts and trucks, among other things, were confiscated during the raid.
The Mazowe Rural District Council recently introduced a sand/gravel extraction fee for those starting construction projects, which is pegged at US$327.
“We were forced to pay the fee. It gives the Mazowe Council monopoly; it becomes the only supplier of sand to builders,” said one of the property owners in the area.
“They said the move was meant to control issues of environmental damage due to sand poaching. After paying the fee, one only has to hire transport for the council to deliver the sand.”
Various corporates have also come on board under Friends of the Environment to rehabilitate some of the degraded pieces of land.
Under the programme, 185 000 hectares of land were rehabilitated across the country last year.
There are also plans to desilt rivers and dams, and the sand will be used for construction.
Some countries have adopted the concept of manufacturing and using plastic sand bricks as they move away from environmental degradation practices.
The affordable bricks are made from a mixture of sand and plastics.
The ingredients are mixed at very high temperatures, then compressed into bricks.
The practice involves recycling of plastic waste and ensures less sand is used.