Selina Nyirongo balances a pail of water on her head, a daily chore for most women around Kanyika area, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mabilabo in the northern Malawi district of Mzimba.
But the water Nyirongo draws for her seven children is not safe. It is naturally contaminated with uranium and could be fatal over time as it may lead to kidney damage, according to a baseline environmental survey that Globe Metals and Mining Limited (GMMA) commissioned for the Kanyika Niobium Project in the district.
Located 55km north-east of Kasungu and 165 km from the capital, Lilongwe, Kanyika was recently found to be endowed with minerals that could bring Malawi an estimated K420 billion (roughly $1.5 billion at present exchange rates) over its projected 20-year lifespan or K21 billion ($75 million) annually.
GMMA, an Australian firm, wants to produce rare earth metals such as niobium and tantalum with potential production of uranium and zircon from Kanyika and create up to 2 800 jobs.
This is good news to a country trying to move away from tobacco, hit by the growing anti-smoking lobby and depressed prices, but could be poison for communities around Kanyika in terms of the possibility of hassles of relocating and potential risks to their health the mining project may bring.
It is hard to tell how long Nyirongo and her community have been taking this toxic water, but the coming of the mining activities have helped lay bare the fact that while nature may have been killing them softly, the arrival of the mine could hasten their appointment with death. Which is why district authorities are talking about relocation of the people, and an assessment is underway.
“We already know that we have tuberculosis [TB], but what can we do? This is our land. Before Globe came, we were drinking safe water…They are now telling us this water has uranium, they should give us better water,” argues Nyirongo in an interview at her village.
The water—especially ground-water which people in the area access through boreholes—has high concentration levels of uranium, way above the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended levels for drinking water, according to the assessment.
The report also notes traces of uranium and other harmful minerals in surface water, accessed by the communities through shallow wells.
High concentration of uranium in the water cannot cause TB as Nyirongo believes, but can affect the functions of kidneys and, over time, cause lung cancer in the case of Kanyika where the levels of concentration are very high.
Says the report: “Communities that use water from boreholes with elevated uranium may be at risk of developing adverse kidney effects.”
Kidney failure, according to The Nation’s research, can fatally affect all the major organs in a human body, including the brain.
Uranium may have been present in the water around the area for years given that it is a naturally-occurring radioactive mineral. But studies have also shown that uranium concentrations can also result from human activities such as mining.
Findings by Synergistics Environmental Services (Pty) Ltd, a South African-based company hired to carry out the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project, show that as well as the high concentration of uranium in the water, there is high dust fallout in a few areas, notably along paved roads and Kanyika Primary School, that could worsen once mining starts.
The report says the dust fallout at these places is also higher than the WHO recommended guidelines.
It also says the Kanyika area, especially on the ore body (of uranium), has high soil radioactivity concentrations, indicating that exposures could increase downwind of future mining activities.
The study report documents the findings of the baseline environmental monitoring programme implemented from October 2009 to November 2011 as part of the impact assessment process and provides recommendations to GMMA and the authorities with respect to future operations and mitigation measures.
Samples were done on all water sources in the area and sent to Nuclear Energy Corporation Limited and Waterlab (Pty) Ltd of South Africa and the Malawi Bureau of Standards for analysis.
Results showed that elevated uranium concentrations have been detected in some community boreholes during the baseline monitoring for the EIA.
“These concentrations exceed the WHO drinking water guidelines. The elevated uranium is expected to be related to the natural geology [granitic gneisses] of the area.
“Communities that use water from boreholes with elevated uranium may be at risk of developing adverse kidney effects,” reads the report in part.
The report says uranium levels recorded from geo-hydrological monitoring boreholes drilled within the ore body also show uranium levels higher than the WHO drinking water guidelines.
“People dependent on certain of the community boreholes for all their water receive a much higher dose from this exposure pathway when compared to people collecting drinking water from Milenje River, which has very low radioactivity concentrations,” says the report.
‘Health effects not immediate’
But Chrispine Ngwena, Kanyika Nobium Project country manager, while admitting the survey findings in an e-mail response, said the situation does not pose an acute health problem for the local population.
He said by “acute”, Globe means that the health effects will not come immediately after consuming the contaminated water.
Normally, the effects of drinking uranium-contaminated water are not “acute” but rather “chronic”, which refers to the delayed result of continuous consumption over a long period of time. This means that the effects do come, only later.
Ngwena said GMMA is evaluating ways to help the communities as part of its corporate social responsibility programme prior to commencement of the project.
He dismissed claims by some local communities that GMMA activities in the area have contaminated the water.
“These issues are pre-existing and are in no way due to GMMA’s activities on site, and, in fact, were only discovered because of our work. If the Kanyika Niobium Project proceeds, the situation will not be made worse…
“GMMA has also made a written commitment that no member of the community will be worse off because of the development and we will not countenance any activity that endangers the health of the Kanyika area community,” said Ngwena.
That notwithstanding, Synergistics Environmental Services has recommended, among other things, an intensification of monitoring activities of the uranium levels prior to construction and starting of mining operations.
“It is also recommended that the environmental authorities be informed of elevated uranium levels detected in community water sources as this is a key issue identified during the monitoring programme. Also of importance is that risks regarding high PM10 [particular matter less than a 10 scientific measure] levels recorded at the Kanyika Primary School and microbiological contaminants detected at certain boreholes be conveyed [to authorities],” says the consultant in the report.
On its part, government says it expects GMMA to prepare a detailed development agreement to spell out how they will deal with the challenges and issues raised in the report.
“Suffice [it] to say that in any mining activity, there is corporate social responsibility and definitely communities around Kanyika will be better off once mining activities take off,” said Ben Botolo, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment.
“This issue has to be approached in totality. Is it ground water which is contaminated? Is it run-off water? What type of contamination, if any? Definitely, our colleagues in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation will advise on the way forward if this story is true,” said Botolo in an e-mail response.
Apart from the uranium question, communities are unhappy with the relocation proposal.
Village Head Moffat Phiri has 28 acres, over 10 head of cattle and fears losing them all if relocated.
“We are told that 250 villages will be relocated in the first phase, but we don’t know where we are going because we have just been told to ask neighbouring villages to assist us with land,” says Phiri.
“Currently, I am only using 12 acres; the rest I reserved for my children, but I have been told to move and that I will only be compensated for the 12 acres I use, they say the rest belongs to government,” he says.
Nyirongo, too, is concerned about losing about 12 acres of her family land if the mine forces her to move.
She says: “Where will I grow my food? Where is the land?”
In a separate interview, Mzimba District Commissioner (DC) the Reverend Moses Chimphepo said he did not have exact figures of those expected to relocate.
“Council officers have just returned. They were there for one week doing assessments for compensation. Figures will be ready next week,” he said.
Chimphepo parried fears of land scarcity, saying “these people will not be transported to different areas, they will be within the area because land is available there”. He said people will only be moved from the area under mining.
Part of the affected area is in Kasungu, but Harrison Lende, the DC there, said he will have better information next week.
“Globe officials are coming for stakeholder briefings next week. We will be asking them the same questions because we don’t know anything yet,” he said.