Once Upon a Water Source
Once Upon a Water Source
30.11.09 – Musoma>Tanzania
She’s tending to her shamba, her farm, the farm is still here, but…a little discoloured in places, some banana trees and pineapple plants have wilted, some are fruiting, but she can’t eat them, or rather, she won’t eat them.
Susanna Solomon, 55, is slim and shy mother of 12 from Nyangoto village, situated in the rural Tarime district on the eastern side of Lake Victoria. She has been farming here for a long time and continues to do so even though she can’t use her produce.
“I was farming rice before,” she said, “but I can’t anymore because of the chemicals.”
The area we’re talking about was contaminated by a leakage from Barrick Gold’s North Mara Mine in May this year.
In large sections the grass has completely died, and plants and some vegetation have off-coloured stalks. The stream running from the mine site (just 100 or so meters away) has a green moss covering it, there is no sign of insects, tadpoles or frogs, and some crystallised plants stick out of the water, as if frozen or covered by salt.
“I was advised not to eat the vegetables I’m growing,” she said, “because you can be affected. I am still cultivating the land because otherwise I will lose it; so I am just here to hold the land.
“I am still waiting for compensation, but they haven’t said anything about (it).”
Monitoring by Barrick at the time of the seepage detected pH levels of 4.8 in the Tigithe River, which is far too acidic for fish to live in, and far under Tanzanian drinking water standards.
According to the local community the contamination has caused surrounding crops and animals and fish to perish. Many villagers have also complained of health problems, such as skin irritations and stomach pains as a result of drinking and bathing in the water.
Although some 700-1000 heads of cattle have allegedly died since the incident occurred, no one was able to back the statement up with evidence. Barrick claim that the accident happened only as a result of villagers stealing the PVC lining from the leach ponds on several occasions, to use as roofing for houses and shops. However, in the areas I visited, the lining was not evident.
Walking along the path to the river are many people, mostly women and children going to collect water from the Tigithe; from upstream though.
“We have always collected water from here, we live nearby,” says Esther Dustin, amongst 5 other women from the area. “Most people depend on the river for everything; for bathing, washing, drinking, and for cattle.
“We have been complaining about the water sine 2005, but this year was the worse. We have to use the water, because there is no other source, the Mara River is too far from here.”
Many villagers have visited health centres in the region complaining of skin irritations due to bathing in the Tigithe River, the results of their tests have yet to materialise.
Chacha Ochibhota is young, he’s 21 years old, he has a skin pigmentation covering his face, his eyes are bloodshot, he speaks quietly and moves slowly. His medical examination states that on the 1st of July, he claimed to ‘have used acidic water, contaminated by the mining project – sustaining burns on the face…’ Referring him to the Tarime District Hospital for further investigations.
“I started feeling the problems in May this year,” he said. “I have a farm near the Tigithe River. When it was hot and sweaty I would bath in the water and wash my face and body to cool down.
“It felt different, when I tasted the water, it didn’t taste normal, it was a salty taste, and it was the feeling of rubbing salt in wounds…
“I was referred to the district hospital, but because I had no money, I didn’t go.
“For me,” said Chacha, “I need only treatment, so I can do work. Now I can only lie in bed, or do soft work…”
The community state that Barrick are not compensating people fairly, if at all – and Barrick state that they are compensating people “handsomely”.
Gerhard Hermann, the Production manager for NMGM Ltd. says “We compensate them for their land, for crops on their land and also for any structures.
“We pay as if their entire property was planted with bananas (even if it’s not), we call that the ‘full banana concept’.”
No sick or displaced person appears to be taking direct action against Barrick.
“No one has laid any charges against us as far as I’m aware,” said Hermann. “(Because)…they have to have a case, and the fact that they’re not doing anything, makes you question if they really have a case or not.”
Barrick were not able to replace the lining completely until August this year; due to manufacturer delays, meaning that between May and August acidic liquid was soaking into the earth and leaking out into the environment unstopped.
“This is where we want to dig a trench, so if we ever have breach of the liners again we can pick up the seepage in a nice deep liner here and then pump it back into the ponds,” said Hermann
Currently, the water flowing from directly below the containment pond is at a pH level of about 4-4.5. Tanzanian drinking water standards are between 6.5 and 7.5.
According to Barrick, 10 meters downstream from where polluted water enters the river, the pH is back up to normal because of dilution.
Barrick claim to be operating on a zero-discharge policy, meaning that no water from the waste or leach ponds will enter into this environment. This process was explained to me while standing next to the leach pond looking up at the massive wall of the waste dump containing Potentially Acid Forming (PAF) material (sulphuric acid).
“Basically what it is, is an impervious layer, right at the bottom of high dense polyethylene plastic, 1mm thick, dense plastic, which the acid cannot penetrate through, we have a drainage system on top of that, and on top of that a waste dump.
“So any water percolating through the waste dump can only report to one place and that’s the pond, when it hits that liner, it can’t go anywhere else, the only place water from there can go from there is into the drainage pipe, and the only place those drainage pipes go to is a lined leach pond…once it reaches the leach-pond it is also completely contained.”
Unless of course something breaches it, which is what is said to have happened.
“They are trying to put the blame on the community,” said Chacha Wambura, the executive director of Foundation HELP, an NGO based 100 km away in the town of Musoma. Wambura has been working to expose environmental issues around the NMGM and running awareness-raising and capacity building campaigns for the national community.
“People are not cooperating because they want justice to be done.
“The community can be aggressive, but the company (and the government) are not trying to alleviate problems.
“The government are backing Barrick 100 percent, without knowing it they are fueling their own graves; because this water flows into the Mara River, and discharges into Lake Victoria, and so many animals and humans will be affected by that.”