By CHARLES CHISALA
AS ZAMBIA continues to attract more foreign direct investment (FDI) in the mining sector the country may find itself grappling with increased environmental degradation, which calls for proactive policies.
The country’s copper output is expected to increase from the current levels of around 700,000 to 1.3 million tonnes by 2015, according to experts.
There is therefore need for the Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA) to step up its monitoring and strengthen its inspectorate to protect the health of residents of operational areas.
This is simply because pollution does not only tip the ecological balance, but also affects the health of human beings living within the vicinity of the mining operations.
In Zambia the most notorious form of pollution has been emissions of acid mist or vapour into the air beyond tolerable levels.
The sulfur dioxide, locally known as senta, has been a nuisance to the residents of Kankoyo and Butondo townships in Mufulira, and Wusakile, Nkana West and Twibukishe townships in Kitwe for decades.
It is nearly impossible to grow vegetables in these townships because of the high levels of pollution, which stifles the growth of the crops.
Equally, it has been difficult for residents to grow fruit trees for the same reason. When the sulfur dioxide is released into the air it hovers over the areas like a harmless cloud of smoke and falls down as acid rain.
Acid rain can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals and infrastructure. Acid rain is caused by emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which react with the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids.
It is only when it descends to the human height that the nasty effects are felt. People will be coughing continuously while tears will be streaming from their eyes.
When I first visited Kankoyo township in Mufulira years ago I thought I could not stay longer than two days. I was struggling to breathe and see clearly because of the itching in my eyes every time the senta was released from one of the stacks.
Children would be crying without stopping. A few dogs could be seen running from one hiding place to another, yelping in distress. The one month I stayed there seemed to be a decade.
I felt sorry for the residents, who had nowhere to run to but had to ensure the discomfort each day that dawned.
By March last year, over two decades later, little had changed. ZEMA ordered Mopani Copper Mines (MCM) to shut down its leaching plant in Mufulira west following complaints from affected residents.
The Citizens for Better Environment (CBE) had mounted a spirited campaign against the Glencore-owned company on behalf of the over 3,000 residents who were directly affected by the pollution.
Its executive director Peter Sinkamba said then his organisation would do everything within its power to ensure the mining company complied with mining-related environmental regulations to protect residents.
The agency’s spokesperson Chama Mwansa was quoted by Reuters wire service as saying it had ordered Mopani to close down the leaching plant after discovering that there were excessive emissions of pollutant acid mist.
However, Mopani has since invested significant resources in effective prevention and mitigation mechanisms. Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) has done the same at its upgraded smelter in Chingola.
Sulfur dioxide is a colourless gas with a pungent smell. When under pressure it condenses into liquid and dissolves easily in water.
According to the United States Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) exposure to the chemical affects the lungs and at high levels may result in the burning of the nose and the throat, breathing difficulties and severe airway obstruction.
The sulfur dioxide present in the air comes mainly from human activities such as burning of coal and oil at power plants, though it can also be released into the air through volcanic eruptions.
But in countries like Zambia the main source is copper smelting.
ATSDR says human beings come into contact with the acid mist through breathing or touching in areas of operations.
“Exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide can be life threatening. Exposure to 100 parts of sulfur dioxide per million parts air (100ppm) is considered immediately dangerous to life and health,” the agency says in its fact sheet.
Is that not enough food for thought?
The author is Zambia Daily Mail Editorial and Analysis Editor.
985 total views, 2 views today