The spell of Kenya’s gold mines: addressing pollution and fatalities
In December 2021, 8 miners were trapped in an artisanal gold mine in Abimbo, Siaya County, Kenya after the mine collapsed. 6 were rescued, one died and the fate of the last miner, Tom Okwach, is uncertain as he still has not been found almost 4 months later, with rescue efforts left to his family and well-wishers. Unfortunately, this has happened several times before. Six months earlier, another collapse was reported at Ikolomani gold mine, Kakamega County where 5 miners lost their lives, and the rest escaped with serious injuries. A year prior, 4 miners died after a Migori gold mine collapsed. Accidents in Kenya’s artisanal gold mines occur almost yearly, with many miners reporting that they had escaped a mine collapse at least once.
The allure is understandable. About 20% of the world’s gold is produced by the artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector. Kenya stands to cash in as Shanta Gold, an East Africa based gold producer and explorer announced in 2021 the discovery of gold deposits estimated to be worth $2bn, along the Kakamega – Busia gold belt. Artisanal gold mining contributes significantly to local economies – the Alliance for Responsible Mining in its 2018 study reports that gold in Kenya has a $225 Million production value annually. The industry employs 40,000 directly, with 240,000 more Kenyans dependent on this livelihood and thousands more indirectly employed as families have chosen to forego cultivation and lease out their farms for this activity.
However, small scale artisanal gold mining in Kenya is accompanied by egregious health effects. Mercury is used by Kenyan gold miners to extract gold even though it is a controlled chemical. And women are the most impacted. The Alliance for Responsible Mining in its 2018 study in Migori reported that men constitute 92% of the extraction workforce while women constitute 62% of the mineral processing workforce. This means that most women who are unable to go underground are left to opencast mining or leaching, which exposes them to mercury. Majority of them lack protective equipment and handle with bare hands, breathing in the gas during the refinery process. The health effects are dire, with inhaled mercury leading to cancer, neurological damage most commonly evidenced by shaking of the hands and serious impacts on digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys. Further, the communities near these mines are also affected due to mercury contamination of water and soil and subsequent accumulation in food staples such as fish. The risks to children are also substantial, with mercury emissions from artisanal gold mining resulting in both physical and mental disabilities and compromised development. Unfortunately, many mining communities in Western Kenya are unable to access low cost sensors to test mercury levels, or even protective equipment to minimize exposure.
Legally, the Mining Act, 2016 recognizes artisanal mining, providing a basis for the government to legalize and formalize the sector. The Kenyan government has further proposed to increase the mining sector’s contribution from 1% to 10% of GDP by 2030 through value addition and the implementation of new policies. However, several obstacles exist- high levels of informality, difficulties in attracting finance, limited business skills of artisanal miners, poor health and safety standards, shortage of access to geo-data, and inefficient and environmentally damaging exploration, extraction and processing techniques. There needs to be robust political will to push the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining to formalize the sector with haste to reduce fatalities and ensure that miners are capacity built to minimize use of mercury, understand rock properties and build more sustainable shafts and tunnels in mines to ensure a good foundation and minimize risk of collapse. The National Environment Management Authority(NEMA), the environmental regulator, further has to robustly exercise its mandate to control pollution through regular testing of mercury emissions and protect the health and safety of miners and communities in western Kenya. This mandate cannot be delegated to academic institutions or NGOs conducting studies in the area. Gender sensitive sensitization campaigns also need to be a priority to minimize mercury use and improve its handling and waste containment. The intended Kakamega Gold Refinery, a Kenyan-Chinese government project will further go a long way in formalizing processing techniques and reducing mercury exposure. The artisanal mining committees recently gazetted at the County level will be invaluable in mine disaster response.
However with the deadly rainy season now approaching, it remains a race against time for the government to streamline the sector, minimize pollution and prevent fatal accidents.
If you wish to learn more about small scale artisanal mining in Kenya, please reach out to me at email@example.com
Photo credit: https://allafrica.com/stories/201910070116.html
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In December 2021, 8 miners were trapped in an artisanal gold mine in Abimbo, Siaya County, Kenya after the mine collapsed. 6 were rescued, one died and the fate of the last miner, Tom Okwach, is uncertain as he still has not been found almost 4 months later, with rescue efforts left to his family…