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FILE: A general view of the the Kariba Dam wall between Zimbabwe and Zambia, Feb. 19, 2015.

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe, (Reuters) - Zimbabwe mining companies can pay for electricity in foreign currency to guarantee supplies, the energy minister said on Friday, a day after he indicated there could be deeper power cuts in the country because of low dam water levels.

Power is critical for Zimbabwe’s mining sector, the southern African nation’s biggest foreign currency earner and what President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said will be the major driver of the country’s economic recovery.

Energy minister Fortune Chasi had said on Thursday that the country’s largest hydroelectric plant, Kariba Dam, will suspend output in 14 weeks if water levels continue to fall at the current rate.

State utility Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC) this month announced the worst rolling power cuts in three years. Though mines have been spared so far, analysts say the cuts will hurt economic revival efforts.

“Exporting mining firms can also enter into foreign currency payments arrangements with ZETDC on a back-to-back arrangement with regional utilities to enable the utility to secure more imports,” Chasi told mining executives at an annual meeting of the Chamber of Mines in Victoria Falls.

Power imports are cushioning platinum mining companies against the electricity cuts, but gold mines could face production cuts because they continue to rely on an unstable national grid, industry officials have said.

Zimbabwe is seeking to exploit its platiunum reserves more quickly. The metal has been in strong demand for use in catalytic converters to limit car emissions, but automakers are increasingly looking to shift to electric cars powered by lithium batteries.

In Harare, Bravura Consortium on Friday signed an agreement with the government to spend more than $50 million on platinum exploration and mining in Zimbabwe.

Bravura, which is owned by Nigerian billionaire Benedict Peters, will carry out surveys and drilling in the next 12 months to quantify the platinum at Serui, west of the capital, after which a mine will be designed and constructed, mining minister Winston Chitando told Reuters after a signing the agreement.

Zimbabwe is pressing platinum miners, including local operations of Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum Holdings to build a base metal refinery. Zimbabwe currently exports unrefined platinum to South African refineries.

Platinum miners have previously said that a shortage of power was hindering plans to build a refinery. Zimbabwe produces 1,100 megawatts (MW) of electricity a day against demand of 1,500 MW. (Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe Editing by David Evans and David Goodman)

FILE: Relatives cover the grave of a cholera victim in Zimbabwe.

Marko Phiri, Thomson Reuters Foundation

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After Thomas Gumede’s father died in April, the Zimbabwean bus driver could not afford an expensive funeral. So, he applied for a burial plot through the local municipality.

He never expected he would end up burying his father halfway across Bulawayo, a city in southwest Zimbabwe.

“There are no cemeteries near where I live,” said Gumede, 39, whose father’s burial plot is about 25km (15 miles) from his home.

“Imagine the transport costs,” he lamented. Each time he visits his father’s grave, he spends “at least $20 on petrol”.

As demand for housing continues to drive Bulawayo’s growth into surrounding rural areas, the city is struggling to find enough space to bury its dead, said Emmanuel Ndlovu, coordinator of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association.

World Bank figures show about one-third of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people live in urban areas, and that its urban population is growing around 2 percent annually.

“The truth is, the municipality has run out of land, as it cannot keep expanding and encroaching into rural districts,” said Ndlovu, whose organisation lobbies the local municipality on behalf of residents.

With cemeteries in and around the city full to capacity, local authorities are encouraging citizens to consider alternatives to traditional burial.

But attempts to promote cremation, double burials or even recycled graves are coming up against long-held cultural and spiritual beliefs.

‘UNAFRICAN’

When Gumede was asked if cremation could be an option for his family, he rejected the idea outright by invoking “ubuntu,” the southern African philosophy that says a person is who they are because of their connectedness to all of humanity.

“We did not even consider (cremation) as a family. It’s unheard of in our ubuntu as Africans,” he said.

Early this year, the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) held public meetings to try to convince residents of the benefits of cremation, but the idea was roundly rejected as “unAfrican”, said Ndlovu.

According to BCC spokeswoman Nesisa Mpofu, the city of about 1.5 million people has had fewer than 30 cremations since the start of the year.

Searching for other solutions, the local government has started suggesting people bury two family members in the same plot, Mpofu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

But, like cremation, the idea has met resistance among residents.

“I have never heard of any such thing as a double burial,” said Lloyd Tshuma, a secondary school teacher.

Tshuma planned to avoid the stress of finding a cemetery space in the city by being buried in his family’s traditional plot in the countryside.

“I will be buried in my rural (area), as has my whole family,” he said.

TWO NEW CEMETERIES

Bulawayo municipality has also considered reusing old graves, a practice that is becoming more common in many parts of the world, as a growing number of countries find themselves low on space to bury the dead.

But Gibson Banda, a member of the Bulawayo United Residents’ Association, another organisation representing residents’ rights in the city, said families are not ready to bury loved ones in other people’s graves.

“There is a problem there because we believe people’s spirits linger in their graves,” Banda said.

“Imagine, then, your relative being buried among unknown spirits.”

BCC spokeswoman Mpofu noted that there are two new cemeteries planned for the city, but construction for both has been delayed.

But, once the two new cemeteries are finished “projections are that these will be enough burial space for all in the foreseeable future,” Mpofu said.

A CRISIS OF SPACE

Bulawayo’s efforts to make space for the dead mirrors its struggles to find affordable housing for the living.

According to Mpofu, the city has a housing waiting list of about 115,000 applicants and a target to provide homes for 3,000 people every year.

But as people continue to migrate into cities from rural areas, meeting housing targets has proven difficult across the country.

According to the finance ministry’s 2019 Infrastructure Investment Plan, the country has a backlog of more than one million who need housing.

About 400 kilometres north of Bulawayo, the capital Harare is also expanding at a rate faster than the municipality can cope with, according to city officials.

In April, minister of state Oliver Chidawu told state media that land shortages in the city were largely due to what he called “weak” government institutions that had allowed developers to buy up council-owned land, including plots that had been earmarked for cemeteries.

The Harare municipality office did not reply to several requests for comment.

In Bulawayo, council officials are stressing the urgency of finding enough cemetery space.

At a city council meeting in March, councillor Mlandu Ncube warned that the city needs “more graves than houses”.

The city’s ongoing shortage of burial sites has Gumede worried about the choices his family will face when he dies.

As he mourned his father, he hoped to take comfort in the idea that he could be near him again in death. Now, he fears that chance has gone.

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