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For decades, mining has formed the backbone of Zambia’s economy, accounting for 12 per cent of its GDP and 70 per cent of its export earnings. But however much Zambia earns in export revenues as Africa’s largest producer of copper and cobalt, for residents of the town of Kabwe, the cost is too much to bear.
Home to approximately 300,000 people in Zambia’s Central Province, the environmental damage that has been caused by lead mining in Kabwe has been nothing short of catastrophic. Ten years ago Time magazine named it alongside Chernobyl as one of “the world’s most polluted places” and experts say that millions of adults and children have been poisoned over the years.
Long-term exposure to lead – which enters the bloodstream and attacks the central nervous system – affects everything from fertility to birth weight to childhood development. It can result in high blood pressure, brain damage and even death. Children are particularly vulnerable to the affects of lead.
Zambia’s largest lead mine and smelter operated in Kabwe from 1902 until it closed operations in 1994. While it was operating, there were no regulations regarding emissions from the mine or the smelter plant. As a result, Kabwe’s soil, plants and air were all contaminated over a course of decades.
Today in Kabwe, the average levels of lead in the blood of its residents range from between 60 and 120 microgrammes (mg) per decilitre (dl), while lead concentrations of an astonishing 300 mg/dl have been recorded in local children – that figure should be no more than 15 mg/dl.
In addition, a World Bank study found that as much as 26,000 mg of lead can be found in the most polluted areas of the town, and that land as far as 14 kilometres away from Kabwe can no longer be used for agriculture.
“People get sick, the water is spoiled and fish die,” says Bernadette Mulamba, a local environmental activist for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
“[Lead] mining has stopped in Zambia, however, the blood levels of lead found in children can cause coughs, weak joints and stunted growth,” says Brian Wilson, an technical advisor in international lead poison management with Pure Earth, a global non-profit that has been working to clear up the environmental impact of lead mining in Zambia. “If lead residue is not thoroughly cleaned from the land and water, affected communities could see illnesses mutate into hard-to-treat strains of lung tuberculosis, for example.”
No choice but to work with poison
The misery that Kabwe’s residents face is compounded by their poverty.
Unemployed men, women and even children sometimes sneak into abandoned mine smelter dams or shafts to search for scrap quarry stones or metal which they can then resell.
Although this is illegal and dangerous (as they are exposed to water and dust infused with lead metal residue), they feel they have no other choice.
For 12 years, 69-year-old Angela Miyoba earned a living by collecting mud from the banks of the Lunsemfwa River – which was the source of hydro-electricity for the mines – to bake, burn and dry clay cooking pots which she then sold to other women in the town. But now she is too ill to work.
“Doctors say my lungs are full of fluid. They were damaged from inhaling the fumes of soil loaded with lead when I refine my pots on the fire,” Miyoba tells Equal Times. For the past two years she has also been unable to walk so she now spends her days sat in her compound, her limbs frozen by the pain caused by lead exposure.
“In 2016 we treated dozens of people affected by infertility, lung tissue damage and breathing difficulties arising from using poisoned water,” says Kabwe’s director of public health, Paul Mukuka. “You will see that the worst affected are the hungry poor. We give nutrients supplements such as amino acids for kids and sugar bars to offset the effects of lead.”
However, chelation therapy – where patients take oral medication until they excrete the lead in their urine – is not available in Kabwe. “We usually send those who are acutely sick with lead poisoning to larger hospitals in the capital Lusaka, but even to get a blood test is very expensive for the average resident in Kabwe,” says Mukaka.
Help to clear up decades of pollution is coming in the form of US$105.6 million from the World Bank.
The Zambian minister responsible for the Central Province, Chanda Kabwe, tellsEqual Times: “We acknowledge the damage done by mining waste. From 2016 to 2021 we are working with the World Bank to heal and restore land polluted by heavy metals in Kabwe and other towns.”
This is not the first such attempt. In 2003, the World Bank financed – through a combination of credit and grants – the US$40 million Copperbelt Environment Project. However, when an independent research team visited the city in 2014 it found surface soil lead concentrations ranging from 139 mg/kg to 62,142 mg/kg – in Zambia, officials say that figure should be 200 mg/kg.
The World Bank says its new project aims to pick up where the previous one left off in terms of assisting with the proper closure of the mines, remediation of contaminated hotspots and the improved enforcement of environmental regulations and monitoring.
“The goal is a 70 per cent reduction in toxic levels of lead in soil and water by 2021,” says Zambia’s World Bank Country manager, Ina-Marlene Ruthenburg.
Mukuka says that more than 60, 000 lives could be protected from the effects of lead when the project comes to an end in 2021. But until then, Kabwe’s residents will continue to pay the unfair price for decades of neglect and mismanagement