By SYLVESTER MWALE
ALTHOUGH the mining sector has remained the major contributor to the country’s economic growth, there is overwhelming evidence suggesting that its legacy includes environmental damage and public health risks. With a contribution of up to 60 per cent to the country’s export earnings, mining remains Zambia’s most reliable sector to the point that its negative impact is rarely discussed conclusively and comprehensively. Gloomily, a long history of mining has ostensibly left a legacy of environmental liabilities and public health risks in mining towns across the country. In Kabwe for instance, recent studies have revealed unacceptably high levels of lead in soils in selected areas as well as high blood lead levels in children requiring treatment long after major mining activities ended. Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and it is particularly harmful to young children. According to the World Health Organisation, young children are particularly vulnerable because they absorb four to lead as adults from a given source. At high levels of exposure, lead attacks the brain and the central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death, while children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and general behavioural disorder. Any reports suggesting that world’s most polluted towns are certainly untrue but it is equally hardly false that the provincial capital still has selected hotspots that require attention. Ironically, the sad reality is that some areas considered to be highly contaminated by lead are either residential with full of children or are offering the source of income through illegal small-scale mining. It is against this background that the World Bank has decided to intervene with a comprehensive project which is aimed at reducing the health risks to the people in Kabwe and other mining towns on the Copperbelt. The World Bank is set today out a US$65.6 million under the Zambia Mining Environmental Remediation and Improvement Project(ZMERIP) which is aimed at reducing environmental health risks to the local people in critically polluted towns. In Kabwe where the local authority is expected to receive US$16 million under the project, major activities would involve the remediation lead contaminated hotspots as well as improve environ mental infrastructure. Apparently, there is a public health risk for about70, 000 people living within the radius of 500 meters from the lead contamination World Bank project seeks to reduce this threat to 30 percent by the end of 2021.This will be achieved by the remediation of hotspots and putting concrete lining in the Kabwe’s main canal which had been the major pathway of lead residue from the mines. Scores of people including women with babies on their backs have been scavenging building stones and some leftover gemstones on highly lead polluted mine area. “This is the only source of income for me and my family; through what is doing here, I am able to feed my children and take them to school, “explained one of the women found at the site scavenging building stones which she sells for a living. She is among more than 350who are currently conducting small scale mining activities, retrieving some stones which they crash and sell in small heaps. Past efforts by the municipality to remove them on the basis that they are risking their lives and those of their children; not even wall fence around the area has managed to stop them from operating from the highly polluted area. Many are undoubtedly aware about the dangers of the lead poisoning particularly to their children, but they have no choice because the lead hotspot is their only source of income. “If I’m given capital that will help me to sustain my life particularly where I am able to pay for school fees for my children, then I will explained Mary Mwila (not her real name) who was found with her two-year old child at the site.“It is because of poverty that’s why you see us here; employment is not easy put food on the table. If all these people were employed today, surely they wouldn’t be digging here.”Evidence clearly suggests that many people mining on the highly polluted site are content to take a risk of contamination rather than starve because of the fear of the pollution. But the World Bank project has recognised these economic dynamics and seeks to empower the people at high risk with alternative skills and business ventures to lure them away from the highly polluted areas. By 2022, the project is expected to achieve a 50per cent reduction in blood lead levels (BLL) in 4,000children under the age of 15that will be tested in Kabwe while awareness levels about lead poisoning are expected to reach 70 per cent. Kabwe project livelihood coordinator Miriam Chilesha said the council has identified over 350women currently mining stones and zinc in hotspots and would be given cash to enable them venture into alternative businesses.“Basically the situation is bad, and we need to remove them from this type of livelihood into better livelihood. We are giving them a small grant of a minimum of US $10,000pergroup. Each group will have a minimum of 10 people and a maximum of 15. “They are supposed to come up with a business venture; Kabwe is unique because we are on the middle so we are also trying to come up with a roadside market so that these groups can sell from the roadside instead of being in these hotspots. The local authority is also working with the Zambia Development Agency (ZDA) to see how the affected small scale miners could be helped with business plans. The Zinc Aluminium Copper and Ore Company(ZALCO), is also set to get up to US$20,000 as grant under the project to enable it boost its recycling of plant that will get every dirty from “With this project, we are expected to create about2,000 job opportunities,” ZALCO chief executive said.“We have started manufacturing solar batteries from the recycled materials and we would like to see a ban on the exportation of scrap metal.”The company is expected to play an important role in ensuring that old and new waste that would be dumped recycled to preserve the environment. World Bank environmental specialist Mwansa Lukwesa says the project would cover three components to help reduce the impact of mining inZambia.“First the project will look at the remediation of contaminated hotspots and improve environmental infrastructure,” explained Mwansa Lukwesa, World Bank environmental specialist in Zambia. “It will also enhance institutional capacity to strengthen environmental governance and compliance of mine safety department Radiation Protection Authority and the Zambia Environmental management Agency.”The lead remediation project in Kabwe would also tackle environmental health risks by partnering with the Ministry of Health and the municipal council in livelihood enhancing initiatives. This will include testing children for lead poisoning and ensuring that those that needed treatment received it. So the project is not only a relief for ordinary citizens who are at high risk, but also to Government agencies such as the councils that have struggled to deliver even their routine public services to citizens.Kabwe deputy mayor Dominic Sichamba said the project had come at right time when other NGOs in Kabwe were struggling t
o make an impact in remediation project. Heal so urged the mediator play a critical role in the implementation of the project so that the public could understand and cooperate. “When you leave this work to foreign journalists, they will always misrepresent the facts so am happy that we have a good relationship with the media and I hope the engagement will continue for the good of the people of Kabwe,” he said. It is undeniable fact that the long history of mining in Zambia has left as much damage to the country’s environment as it has contributed to its growth through foreign earnings. Suffice to state that the World Bank project has all the hallmarks of becoming the most comprehensive mining and environmental remediation ever implemented in the history of mining Zambia. Its emphasis on promoting local intervention by building the capacity of Government institutions like ZEMA and councils to enable them tackle environmental concerns should certainly be applauded. It is equally hoped that much efforts would also be placed on monitoring and evaluating those charged with the responsibility of implementation to ensure they are doing the right thing.