by René Nijenhuis
This summer eight people died and 13 were seriously injured while digging for cobalt in the Shinkolobwe uranium mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when their hand-made tunnel collapsed. This accident was just the climax of a string of concerns about child labour, radiation exposure and pollution by heavy metals.
In the DCR, thousands people earn their living from digging with bare hands and simple shovels to extract ore. They live with the constant risk of exposure to toxic and radioactive substances. Moreover they run a high risk of being buried by a collapsing tunnel, security measures being almost non-existent.
The Shinkolobwe mine fi rst came to international attention as the supplier of the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. The mine had been closed for many years, but yielding to increased demand for cobalt the government decided to allow informal digging for cobalt to resume. With no training in safety or mining people started digging in a completely disorganised fashion, ultimately causing one of their tunnels to cave in.
In October 2004 the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organisation and the UN mission in the DRC sent a team of experts in response to a request for international assistance from the Minister of Solidarity and Humanitarian Affairs.
The UN investigation clearly showed that the risk of further collapses was high enough to justify recommending the government close mine. Worse still on-site measurements revealed that workers had very probably been exposed to ionising radiation exceeding international safety standards.
Soil, dust and water samples were analysed for heavy metal content (cobalt, uranium, copper, and nickel). The long term risks associated with heavy metal contamin ation must be seen in the larger context of the area’s poor quality drinking water.
The assessment mission highlighted the close links between poverty, environment and development. Poverty and unemployment in the region will send diggers back to Shinkolobwe, despite being fully aware of the risks incurred. Problems associated with informal cobalt and copper mining are probably all too common in the mineral-rich province of Katanga. UN experts accordingly recommended setting up an inter-agency working group on informal mining in the province, in partnership with the government.
This relatively minor incident is symptomatic of innumerable other cases in Africa and further afi eld demanding an integrated approach to prevent human and environmental disaster. The environment is a cross-sectoral issue that is closely enmeshed with poverty. A onedimensional solution to the problems at the Shinkolobwe mine would only lead to more of the same elsewhere.
René Nijenhuis is an environmental expert at the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit in Geneva.