This June 5 is World Environment Day, which kicks off the “United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration”. Restoring ecosystems is about preventing, stopping and reversing environmental damage. This is extremely important globally, but especially in Zambia, where mining and other economic activities have caused significant damage.
Take the case of lead mining in Kabwe: from 1904 to 1994, the town housed a mine and a smelter which polluted the environment with extremely high levels of toxic lead. The mine was originally owned by British colonial companies, including Anglo American, and later nationalized. Even though the mine closed 26 years ago, there has never been a full cleanup – the land remains degraded and polluted.
The former mining area contains over 3 million tonnes of waste from the mining process and approximately 2.5 million tonnes of waste from the smelter. Lead dust from these uncovered landfills continues to blow into neighboring residential areas and threatens the health of the community. An estimated 76,000 residents of Kabwe live in homes, yards, schools, playgrounds and roads polluted with lead. Animals are also contaminated with lead.
The matter is urgent and the problem is growing every day. A baby born today in Kabwe is at risk of serious illness due to the extremely high levels of toxic lead deposited decades ago. The Zambian government has a responsibility to ensure that people can live in a clean and safe environment in Kabwe, and that everyone’s right to health is protected. People who have suffered from toxic lead pollution in Kabwe have the right to a remedy, including access to health care and adequate, effective and prompt redress.
Lead is such a toxic heavy metal that there is no known level of exposure to lead, according to the World Health Organization. It can cause hearing loss, vision loss, high blood pressure, IQ deficits, behavioral problems and even coma, seizures and death. Children are particularly at risk because their bodies are still developing and absorb proportionately more lead than adults.
A 2018 medical study estimated that more than 95% of township children exposed to lead from the Kabwe mine had high blood lead levels, and about half of township children have blood lead levels so high that they require emergency medical intervention. Adults are also affected, with particular risks during pregnancy.
The Zambian government is taking action to tackle the problem. In particular, he began testing and treating children affected by lead in Kabwe with a loan from the World Bank. As of December, more than 8,700 children have been tested in clinics, and some are receiving treatment. It also plans to clean up homes.
But its efforts do not tackle the source of the contamination: mining waste. If the waste is not cleaned up, the progress made could be quickly reversed, as it will continue to spread its toxic dust in the region. Children who have been treated will be poisoned again when they return to polluted homes and schools. Rather than tackling the waste heaps head-on, the government has allowed other mining and reprocessing activities that pose additional health risks.
In addition to the current efforts, the government is expected to embark on a comprehensive land reclamation and restoration program at the Kabwe mine, rubbish heaps and surrounding area, with support from donors and companies. This would be the right way to start the new United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration.
Juliane Kippenberg is associate director of children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, and Namo Chuma is country director of Environment Africa / Zambia.