Sierra Leone: Environment – Impacts of illegal mining activities: Threat to water security, human health and potential national public health emergency


The availability of abundant natural resources in a country is considered a blessing by many due to the potential to change the destiny of a country for the better if managed well. Sierra Leone as a country has a huge deposit of mineral resources; whether it benefited the country is a debate for another day. However, the Environmental Protection Agency is concerned about the method of extraction which we believe is causing environmental degradation at an alarming rate. Mineral extraction in various parts of the country has destroyed several communities, leading to loss of biodiversity, land degradation and loss of agricultural land, reducing agricultural potential and threatening food security.

Five decades of mining have resulted in deforestation, water pollution, soil contamination and increasing land degradation due to exploration and mining operations themselves and, in the case of artisanal miners, failure to rehabilitate or restore mined areas.

While the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency proved to be a guarantee of better environmental governance, effective management and protection of the environment remained very difficult. Section 23 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act (2008) gives the Environmental Protection Agency the mandate to regulate mining operations in the country. Mining is one of the projects listed in the First Schedule of the EPA Act (2008) requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) license, but the Agency only regulates listed companies as small and large mining companies. Companies holding an EIA license are audited quarterly to verify their compliance with the terms and conditions of their licenses with the aim of minimizing their environmental footprint and ensuring that their operations are conducted within acceptable environmental standards.

Section 132 of the Mines and Minerals Act 2009 imposes a general duty on every holder of mineral rights to protect and manage the environment, in particular to conduct mining operations in a manner that is “ reasonably practicable to minimise, manage and mitigate any environmental impact, including but not limited to pollution resulting from such operations.

However, this provision has not always been effectively enforced by the National Minerals Agency (NMA). The granting of an exploration license by the NMA without environmental impact assessment and the right of monitoring by the EPA remains an inescapable challenge for effective environmental management. Often, when the EPA undertakes compliance and enforcement monitoring in areas where artisanal mining and exploration licenses have been granted, officers are alarmed by the extent of the degradation of the environment caused by these unregulated mining and exploration activities which worsens the socio-economic conditions of people and communities and increases security. and health risks resulting from contaminated surface mines.

The category of mining that has proven to be very problematic and that contributes greatly to massive environmental degradation is unregulated and uncontrolled artisanal mining. Artisanal mining does not require an EIA license due to the nature and extent of mining. Artisanal mining should only be practiced by Sierra Leoneans using portable tools like shovel, pickaxe, shaker etc.

However, in recent times, there has been an influx of foreigners into the artisanal sector employing the use of earth-moving machinery in violation of the terms and conditions of their licenses and causing large-scale environmental destruction. The degradation caused by this so-called artisanal mining is unprecedented because mining is done without regard for the environment. While mining is done haphazardly, with no plan for reclamation or land rehabilitation, it is the environment, health and livelihoods of local communities that remain severely compromised.

So-called artisanal mining has largely compromised the integrity of the country’s main rivers. Major rivers have fallen prey to illegal mining activities, with dredging and excavation of rivers becoming commonplace. The scale of river mining is unprecedented, leaving major rivers polluted. The Pampana in the north, Sewa and Taia in the south and the Moa River in the east have all been affected by illegal mining activities with long term consequences for drinking water, biodiversity and the health of not only one community. local but of the majority of Sierra Leoneans.

The continued pollution of rivers due to contamination from the use of chemicals, oil spills and the release of other toxic and hazardous substances means that many local communities, major towns and cities will be affected by a shortage of water. potable and local water. fish stock for food and nutrition. Olivia Lai of www.earth.org in her article, “Water Scarcity: Causes and Effects” argued that contaminated and unsafe water is another contributing factor to water scarcity. The high turbidity and likely toxicity of the rivers point to current and future challenges for many communities with the potential to deny much of our population access to fresh water. The United Nations declares that free access to fresh water is a fundamental right. And losing that access to clean water can be detrimental to human health and life, because we all need water to survive. Of greater concern are the long-term health consequences awaiting many Sierra Leoneans who depend on these rivers for domestic purposes, including drinking, cooking and fishing.

While the problem may seem localized only to people in rural areas, there is an imminent threat to the public health of a substantial portion of the citizenry. Major cities across the country draw much of their water from environments potentially contaminated with mercury and other toxic and hazardous substances.

The Sierra Leone Water Company (SALWACO) sources water for the people of Bo from the Sewa River where mercury is potentially used by illegal miners. In Kenema, there has been an allegation of mercury use by gold miners in the Kamboi Hills where SALWACO also sources water for the people of Kenema. In Makeni, although there is no evidence of direct mining in the Kunsho River, illegal mining activities in its tributaries mean that mercury and other toxic and hazardous substances may be present in the river which feeds the inhabitants of Makeni. This precarious situation suggests that a large number of Sierra Leoneans are at grave risk of short and long-term health complications, which could decimate a huge population in different parts of the country.

Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in 2010 that water pollution already kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined. This sends a worrying signal to Sierra Leone where human-caused water pollution has increased and mercury testing and treatment capacity is lacking.

Mercury has serious adverse effects on human health. A report by the Health and Environment Alliance indicates that large doses of mercury can be fatal to humans, but even relatively low doses of mercury-containing compounds can have serious adverse effects on the development of the nervous system and have recently been associated with possible effects on the cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems. It can affect the central nervous system, kidneys and liver and can disrupt immune processes, cause tremors, impaired vision and hearing, paralysis, insomnia and emotional instability.

High blood pressure, altered heart rate, and increased risks of heart attack are also associated with the impacts of mercury on humans. With many recent deaths in the country linked to organ failure, pressure and heart attacks, further investigation is needed to determine whether or not there is a connection to mercury. The One Heath National Secretariat should take the lead in saving more people and the country from a potential public health emergency and national security crisis.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been very proactive in carrying out its mandate to monitor, manage and protect the environment by destroying more than 50 dredgers that illegally exploit the rivers and arresting foreigners in various regions of the country. The government’s commitment to addressing the issue was seen in the presidential statement banning dredge mining across the country, which saw the joint monitoring of the rivers by relevant institutions.

To solve the problem holistically, more needs to be done. The EPA and other institutions must continue to monitor the rivers to ensure that all rivers are free from mining activities. There is a need for a state-of-the-art laboratory to test for the presence of mercury and other toxic substances so that appropriate measures can be taken to treat polluted rivers. Additionally, water technologies that remove mercury and other heavy metals should be installed in water treatment facilities.

To improve sustainable environmental management, the EPA and NMA need to work together more. There is a need for the EPA to exercise oversight over exploration permit holders, who should also require an EIA license before an exploration permit is granted. In addition, the clause that requires the submission of a valid EIA license as a prerequisite to obtaining a mining license should be retained. This is important to ensure sustainable management of the environment and improve environmental governance in the country. The time has come to achieve this, especially because the NMA bill is now before parliament. Environmental management and protection must be priorities. Parliament must have an environmental lens when making decisions on the Mining and Development Bill 2022 to ensure sustainable use of natural resources, tackle climate change and ensure an enabling environment to current and future generations.

The role of local authorities in the effective management of natural resources is also important. As stewards of the land, local authorities should have a stake in environmental protection and should work with the EPA to ensure the effective management and protection of the environment, thereby improving environmental governance at the local level. .


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