29 November 2012

Nigeria: Ecological Fund for Zamfara's Future

THE tragedy has been on for years, but with the death of more than 400 children in March 2010, from lead poisoning, one of the consequences of illegal gold mining, the world appeared to have noticed. Outrage, promises, and little else have been the responses.

Human Rights Watch described the lead poisoning crisis in Anka and Bukkuyum local government areas of Zamfara State (Bagega is the worst hit) as the worst such epidemic "in modern history" with thousands affected outside the official figure of 400 dead children.

Responses to these tragedies were token, even insulting. The deaths were enough reasons to go after the illegal miners and prosecute them, but governments have no such interest, nor have they kept promises to clean the environment of lead, an effort that would bear no result since the illegal mining continues.

Last May the Federal Government made a reluctant appearance at an international conference in Abuja to discuss making Zamfara safe. It promised to provide N850 million required to clear the contaminated soil. The money is still awaited.

How difficult is it to pull out N850 million from the Ecological Fund that is readily available for mysterious causes?

Doctors Without Borders, the main non-governmental agency working on the project in Zamfara has issued another urgent call for funds to cleanse the soil, an exercise it says should be concluded before the rains start in April, otherwise the tragedy would enter a new phase. With all the numerous agencies - Ministry of Health, Ministry of Environment, National Emergency Management Agency - this matter should concern, the children of Zamfara are not getting any attention.

The chances of the children being re-infected without a cleansing of the soil and stopping the illegal mining are high. The current efforts at rescuing the children are sheer waste. Children because of their partially developed organs are at higher risk of lead poisoning which kills or renders them incapable of full growth.

Illegal mining of gold is booming in the areas as villagers find it more lucrative than agriculture. Without arrests and prosecution of illegal miners, more people are joining, sustaining the tragedy.

Unsafe mining techniques and processing of ore to extract gold contaminate drinking water with lead. The poison is so strong that even children who come in contact with the equipment are at risk. Other children work in the illegal mines.

The shame of the Zamfara tragedy is the ease with which our governments abdicate their responsibilities, even where children, the future, are involved. When will governments stop the illegal mining? When will they save the children in Zamfara?

Every delay deals death blows to the children, our future.

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