2 February 2013

Nigeria: Zamfara Lead Poisoning - Hope After Fund Release for Remediation

Gusau — The efforts of stakeholders to avert further deaths in Zamfara State through the remediation of areas affected by lead poisoning received a boost with the release of fund to that effect by the Federal Government yesterday

It has killed hundreds of people, mostly children, even as several others are at risk of death by lead poisoning, which wreak havoc in the affected communities in Zamfara State. Health experts warned that until a remediation of the affected areas is done, the over 1,500 children already affected by lead poisoning could not also be effectively treated. So, as the clock ticks towards the proverbial rainy season, fear of more deaths heightened in the farming and herding communities of Yargalma, Abare, Bagega and Dareta.

Chairman, Senate Committee on Environment and Ecology, Senator Bukola Saraki, who visited Bagega recently, said the situation there "is as disturbing as it is been described." He said he and the committee members had to visit the community for firsthand information on the lingering environmental crisis.

"From what we saw of the homes I visited, something needs to be urgently done to help the affected communities. Shockingly, we came across a woman who had lost eight children for being exposed to lead poisoning from the environment they are living in and she was still staying in the same place. I met many people who still lived in those affected areas and have no other option than to stay where they are at the risk of being further expose.

"As you know without remediation you cannot start treatment. As long as there is a delay it further exposes a lot of children there and there is a greater possibility of a lot of them dying from the disease," he explained.

The Senator also said the visit by the committee revealed that mining activities were done through crude means, thereby further exposing the indigenes to the poison. "We discovered that the mining techniques were not modern. The mining process itself was not done in very hygienic conditions and we could see that the process was hazardous to human life. This also led us to the issue of canvassing for better techniques to be used for the mining process," he noted.

"What we need to do really is to make the mining process itself more hygienic, more secured and less poisonous, because to say you are going to stop them is a wishful thinking. One of the things we tried to do in convincing them is to tell them to start another business," he added.

The Senator said, with the President's approval and subsequent release of the needed funds yesterday, the process of remediation would be intensified. "We have gotten the assurance of the Minister of Finance. We had sat down with the company in charge of the remediation and we have seen their work plan. I believe that this is going to be a very transparent thing as we in the Senate will surely do our own over sight function and not just stop at where we are today. We will make sure that everything is done properly", he assured during an interview with Weekly Trust on the development.

Already soil remediation has commenced in Bagega village of Anka Local Government Area, but may be halted due to the non release of the fund the Federal Government has promised.

However, hope is rising for the people of the affected communities. the release of the fund yesterday at the instance of President Goodluck Jonathan, stakeholders believe, was a climax of the campaign by the Save-Bagega-Group, which has put pressure on relevant authority to prevent further deaths in the affected areas through remediation before the rainy season set in.

Senator Saraki who has led the Senate's call on the Federal Government for immediate intervention commended it for the gesture. "The release of funds from the Federal Government for the environmental clean up in Bagega is a great news for the local community as well as for the thousands of people who added their voice to the campaign," he told newsmen last week in Abuja.

The recent soil therapy conducted by the team comprising experts from the National Center for Disease Control and the Zamfara State Environmental Sanitation Agency indicated that several communities in Gusau and environs have large concentration of lead.

About four communities of Unguwar Danbaba, Samaru and Danmaikyau cotton ginneries are said to have been confirmed as part of the contaminated areas and seven children between the ages of one to five were already said to be infected.

The Emir of Gusau, Alhaji Muhammad Kabir Danbaba has in August last year, raised an alarm over the discovery of devastating concentration of lead in his domain.

In March 2010, the media had beamed their search lights on what seemed to be the biggest lead poisoning disaster ever recorded in the history of the world.

Lead poisoning started when people in the poverty-stricken communities resorted to illegal mining of gold and other mineral resources to make ends meet.

Many illegal mineral processing plants were established by the villagers in their personal residences apparently ignorant of the danger associated with the mining activities. The heavy presence of lead in the mined mineral infection y the villagers especially women and children.

The effect was devastating as more than 1,000 children died in the process, even as hundreds of others were also deformed.

Health experts had also made it clear that lead poisoning could cause infertility and miscarriage in women.

Malama Halima Isah, a house wife who lost her five-year-old child Sani following large concentration of lead in his blood recounted her grief and sorrow to Weekly Trust. "He was the only begotten child in the family and we lost him; I am appealing to the appropriate authority to stop this menace," she cried out.

This menace drew the attention of government and non-governmental organizations such as the UNICEF, WHO and Medicines Sans Frontiers MSF etc world over. These organizations partner with the federal and state governments by sending experts to provide medical aid and sensitize the affected communities on how to take preventive measures against lead poisoning.

Government on its parts has embarked on massive sensitization and enlightenment campaigns against the danger of lead poisoning and even sometimes cracked down on the illegal miners.

Investigation in one of the illegal mining sites in Bagega revealed that poverty plays a major role in this problem as youths mostly in their early 20s were busy digging underground tunnels to search for gold.

One of the illegal miners Yusuf Haruna told Weekly Trust that he would never abandon the mining sites until he was satisfied that he had got what he wanted.

"Any attempt to stop people from these mining activities will breed security problem, because these mining activities provide jobs to thousands of jobless youths and they make living from here," he said.

Investigation further revealed that the youths are making a lot of money from the mining. Weekly Trust learnt that two years ago, three miners in the same mining pit made six million Naira. There is a ready market for the gold because dealers from even neighbouring countries armed with money flooded the mining sites.

Alhaji Ibrahim Garba is one of them, he told Weekly Trust that he used to buy every a gram of gold at N6,000.

"The miners don't need to go to Gusau to sell the gold; as soon as they bring their product, we weigh it and then pay them. An average miner makes about N50,000 a day," he said.

Four gold miners were buried alive in the underground tunnels they dug themselves two years ago and all effort to rescue them failed. Though the illegal miners had deserted the site where that particular incidence happened, but other illegal mining sites still flourish in the area.

Meanwhile, Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara State is yet to fulfill the promise to end the illegal mining activities in the state.

He said at least N2.6 billion is needed to end lead poisoning through the remediation projects already started in the affected communities of Bagega, Dareta,Yargalma and so on.

The contaminated soils in these communities is being evacuated and replaced with the safer one.

Experts believe illegal mining activities may continue unless the problems of unemployment and poverty are properly addressed, even as they canvassed for immediate remediation of the already contaminated areas before the rainy season to avoid further deaths.

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