Gold mining: Source of livelihood that is a threat to villagers' lives

Kitere village in Migori is polluted by gold mining activity.

The death of a cow is devastating to the owner, especially if it was the sole source of nutrition and income.

For residents of Kitere Village, Rongo Constituency in Migori County, the death solidified the fact that their lives were in grave danger.

The cow had drank water from a stream that was polluted by mining waste containing mercury and possibly lead.

Noel Odipo, 26, a resident of Kitere, says they live in constant fear of being poisoned by the water.

He explains that in the homesteads surrounding the mining sites in the area, residents have to be cautious about the source of their drinking water. One sip of water from a source polluted with mercury means instant death.

Odipo is one of the artisans in Kitere who depends on gold mining to make ends meet every day but, like every other resident of Kitere, he is worried about the environment he's living in.

"We try our best not to discharge mining waste materials especially those containing mercury but some of this waste finds its way into adjacent river systems which can have widespread and far-reaching impacts downstream," Odipo says. "The mining sites surrounding us use the same chemicals because they are inexpensive and simple to use," he says.

He says that even though they are aware of the impacts of the activity on the environment. They have no other source of income to turn to.

"Extracting gold from the ground is hard work especially for us as small-scale gold miners. We always use mercury in the exploitation process and this is the chemical element that has been used to extract gold in Kenya despite Kenya's 2016 mining act that outlawed its use. It's a job we must do to make a living, we don't have any option," Odipo explains.

The mining sector represents an emerging rural economy that provides livelihoods for millions of households worldwide.

Approximately 20 million people work in artisanal and small-scale mining accounting for 45 per cent of all mining, according to the American Society for Microbiology Activity.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the adverse impacts of abandoned mines on human and ecosystem health have not been adequately addressed according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Over 80 per cent of the world's wastewater is released into the environment without treatment, poisoning the fields where vegetables and plants are grown and the lakes and rivers that provide drinking water to 300 million people globally.

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), represents 20 per cent of the gold supply and 90 per cent of the gold mining workforce globally which operates in highly informal setups.

Mine waste, heavy metals, and acidic water often end up in streams and rivers. Mining has polluted the headwaters of more than 40 percent of the western watersheds according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), high levels of mercury can damage the nervous system, digestion, and immune system and can even poison the lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes. In addition, pregnant women also risk giving birth to babies with congenital diseases.

Mining activity has other negative effects on the environment such as noise and air pollution.

According to Wycliffe Odhiambo, 38, up to 12 hours of disturbing sounds come from "crushers" used to break large rocks into fine soil particles used in the extraction of gold. Residents living around these mining sites have been complaining about this disturbance for years but they have no choice but to get accustomed to it.

"I've been mining gold for more than five years. Noise pollution has caused environmental effects together with health effects to a large mass. The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) always came here to warn artisans about the health and environmental risks of this noise but we are still here," Odhiambo says.

He says that the activity is also a major air polluter. "The smoke that comes from these machines has had great negative impacts on our health and crops. I hear some of my colleagues complaining of chest pains and breathing difficulties," he says.

He adds that he believes that air pollution also affects the crops around the area.

"The area is rocky so doesn't fully support farming in comparison to other areas in Nyanza but that does not mean we should not produce enough subsistence crops. Crops we grow around mining sites are always weak and low-yielding. I think air pollution from this site hurts plant growth," Odhiambo explains.

"All these things make the place unconducive for one to settle but this is where we were born and gold mining is our work we can't run away from it," he says.

In addition, the mining sites are full of adits (a horizontal or nearly horizontal passage to an underground mine). According to residents of Kitere, the adits are scattered in every mining station. The area is also littered with adits that are no longer in use, making it risky for residents, especially children.

"We lost a child who fell into an adit in 2015. We have countless cases of injuries. Residents have to walk carefully lest they fall into an adit and break their leg or end up dead," Odipo says.

Odhiambo says that soil erosion is another environmental effect of gold mining in Kitere. The erosion exposes hillside mining dumps, and tailing dams. The resulting siltation affects the surrounding areas.

Soil erosion decreases the water available for plant growth resulting in population decline in the plant ecosystem.

UN Environment Extractive Hub Coordinator Janyl Moldalieva says sustainable mining requires that companies better understand and appreciate the value of biodiversity both to their long-term operations and to local communities.

Modalieva says companies and people in the mining sector should consider all environmental impacts.

"It is important to consider direct, indirect, induced, and cumulative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services throughout the lifecycle of a mining project, including exploration, construction, operation, closure, and post-closure and legacy," Moldalieva says.

Odipo says that the government should create awareness about the hazards of mining.

"Health workers and government officials should be resourced to conduct workshops among artisans involved in small-scale gold mining like Kitere to explain the toxicity of using mercury as gold extracting agent and afterwards provide better and safe options of extracting gold," Odipo says.

[email protected]