The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has raised a red flag over the rampant use of mercury by small-scale and artisanal miners in the processing of gold with a staggering 96 percent of them using the hazardous material.
UNDP's concerns come in the wake of the development agency having partnered the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development in a project that will culminate in the identification and solving of some of the key challenges facing small-scale miners in their quest to ramp up production.
Initial findings of a research done by UNDP in conjunction with the Ministry of Mines, the Chamber of Mines and other stakeholders, has shown that a huge number of miners are still using mercury.
The continued use is at variance with the Minamata Convention, for which Zimbabwe is a signatory, which seeks to eradicate the use of mercury in the processing of gold.
The convention seeks to attain effective and sustainable ways of eliminating the use of mercury by 2022.
The initial findings note that the total eradication of mercury could prove difficult for Zimbabwe amid fears of unintended job losses in the mercury industry.
"Mercury is used by about 96 percent of these thousands of artisanal and small-scale miners resulting in significant negative health and environmental impacts," notes the initial findings.
"(The) issue is complex and multi-layered, particularly across various stages in the gold value chain.
"Loss of mercury industry could have unintended unemployment, loss of gold revenue from a contraction in the artisanal and small-scale sector if mercury is not available," notes the findings.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development Mr Onismo Mazai-Moyo, confirmed the collaborative work the ministry is doing with UNDP as well as the mercury concerns that have been raised.
"It's collaborative effort between Government and the development partner," said Mines and Mining Development Permanent Secretary Mr Mazai-Moyo when contacted for a comment on Friday.
"They have so far raised a number of issues and one of them is on the continued and unsafe use of mercury," he said.
Issues around mercury ban could have a huge impact on Government's projections particularly the US$12 billion mining industry target by 2023.
Of the US$12 billion annual target, gold is expected to contribute the largest chunk with US$4 billion followed by platinum, which has a US$3 billion target.
The Environmental Management Authority (EMA), recently reported that a number of artisanal gold miners were using mercury, without the requisite protective clothing and also noted that Zimbabwe uses over 50 tonnes of mercury annually in gold processing.
While Zimbabwean gold producers are taking time and seem to be lagging behind in terms of embracing alternative and safer gold processing methods, reality is that they may be forced to change in 2022 as mercury manufacturers are likely to heed the ban.
Various studies have shown that the exposure to mercury may cause serious health complications including to the development of foetus for pregnant women.