Nairobi — A MINING boom along the expansive border between Kenya and Tanzania has sparked fears of massive pollution and environmental degradation in East African region.
The Lake Victoria and the Mara River are at the mercy of the crisis, which is a major threat to the ecosystem of Masai Mara and Serengeti game reserves where the annual wildebeest migration, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) wonder of the world, annually takes place.
Thus, the vast availability of minerals in the border region is a double-edged sword.
Big international mining firms have fenced off vast areas while smaller players scavenge the rocky hillsides mainly for gold, limestone, zinc, gemstones and soda ash.
There are also significant deposits of nickel, cobalt, copper, niobium, iron ore and coal.
The emerging boom has created an elaborate mining sector.
Moses Njeru, the Kenya Chamber of Mines chief executive, said 150 companies presented applications for exploration licences while another 100 applied for the dealer licences in just two years.
Njeru said the outlook was favourable since "the good geology is favouring the presence of minerals."
Earnings from the sector have been encouraging.
Tanzania rakes in an average of US$2,44 billion every year from mining while Kenya earns an estimated $1,61 billion from the sector.
Revenues also boost the rollout of infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals.
On the downside, the threat of pollution to the Lake Victoria and the Mara River is a menace to the tourism industry around Masai Mara and Serengeti game reserves.
Kenya's tourism ministry disclosed the Masai Mara game reserve attracted over 2 million international tourists, earning the nation $1,4 billion in revenue. Tanzania's earnings were slightly higher.
The tourism revenues, researchers now warn, could soon be lost since the Masai Mara and Serengeti biodiversity is fast losing its allure due to the massive environmental degradation caused by the mines.
Dotto Mungo, a Tanzanian District Environment Management officer, said while the Mara River could still be salvaged with quick intervention, there was concern because chemicals from the mines are not safely managed.
"Mining drains dangerous minerals into the river. Miners should use recycling ponds so that they can reuse water without letting it drain into the river and its tributaries," Mungo said.
The tributaries include Somoch, Tigite and Tobora.
Scientists are particularity uneasy with the use of mercury in gold processing. It is applied to form a gold-mercury amalgam. When heated, the mercury vapourises, leaving the gold. The remnants percolate into the soil or flows to the Mara, eventually finding its way to Lake Victoria.
Novati Kessy, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) coordinator, said the use of mercury flouted the Minamata Convention on Mercury of 2017. The convention calls for a ban on new mercury mines and the phase-out of existing ones.
"If mercury levels are allowed to increase in the river, they will end up people's dinner plates through fish," Kessy said.
There are fears of massive deaths of wildlife that rely on the lake and Mara River for water.
"It is not a matter of if but when a crisis will hit our game parks and reserves," Paul Okinyi, a Kenyan environmentalist warned.
The use of cyanide to extract gold from mud is encouraged. Cyanide is mainly used by middle and large scale gold miners.
"Cyanide is a better option because it breaks down in water due to its high affinity for oxygen," Kessy said.
Locals are also worried and believe the outbreak of some diseases is linked to mining activities.
"Children are suffering from unexplained digestive and respiratory ailments and we hardly get help," said Siprose Mnangwa, a resident of Kenya's Masara town.
Omondi Anyanga, a former Kenyan Member of Parliament whose area has the Macalder Mines, says mining firms should be cognisant of communities' right to a safe environment.
"A lot is at stake when miners prioritise profits at the expense of flora and fauna," Anyanga said.
Chacha Nyagawa, the Tobora Water Users Association chairman, said they had embarked on a massive tree planting exercise to neutralise the pollution in the Serengeti.
Over 16 000 trees have been planted on 16 acres of land.