By Kizito Makoye
MARA, Tanzania (AA) - Authorities in Tanzania have strongly condemned mining companies, accusing them of discharging toxic wastewater into the transboundary Mara River, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of tilapia fish and the loss of livelihoods.
The warning comes barely two months after more than 1,500 dead tilapia fish mysteriously washed up on the banks of the river, causing huge losses to residents whose fishing activities had been suspended, pending an investigation into the root cause of the deaths.
Samuel Gwamaka, director-general of the National Environment Management Council of Tanzania (NEMC), the country’s environmental watchdog, said local and international mining companies have been discharging toxic wastewater into the river.
“We strongly condemn the discharge of wastewater into freshwater bodies that people use for daily consumption. We will not hesitate to take stern action against anyone who violates the law,” Gwamaka told Anadolu Agency.
- Flouting the rules
Gwamaka accused small- and large-scale mining companies of repeatedly flouting environmental rules, consequently harming marine life and livelihoods.
The warning came after Canada-based Barrick Gold’s North Mara Gold Mine had been ordered to pay 1 billion Tanzanian shillings ($430,477) for failure to appropriately dispose of wastewater from its factories and leaving it perpetually flowing into water bodies.
The transboundary Mara River snakes from the Mau forests in Kenya and drains into Lake Victoria in the Tanzanian city of Musoma. It supports the lives of thousands of people and is part of the great Serengeti ecosystem which is connected to the Maasai Mara National Park in neighboring Kenya.
Increasing human activities such as mining, industry settlements and farming have polluted the river, threatening livelihoods, officials warned.
Investigations by Anadolu Agency revealed that every day, millions of liters of potentially contaminated water are being discharged by small- and large-scale gold miners into surrounding streams and rivers without being treated.
That torrent, said residents, is tainting drinking water sources and exposing residents to potentially dangerous metals such as mercury.
Anadolu Agency has analyzed data from the Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team, a local charity tracking sustainable management of the environment and natural resources, which suggests at average flows, more than 58 million liters of contaminated wastewater may be streaming daily into water bodies from various mining sites.
“Most of this industrial waste runs untreated into rivers, ponds and groundwater,” said local environmental activist Sophia Kingai.
- Sheer negligence
According to NEMC, mining firms that have miserably failed to comply with environmental laws out of sheer negligence will be dealt with severely.
“We work closely with other government authorities and law enforcers to institute punishment to offenders,” said Gwamaka.
While toxic spills are believed to be among the causes of frequent deaths of fish in the Mara River, other experts said most fish kills in rivers are attributed to the low concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water.
The frequent episodes of discharging potentially contaminated wastewater into the river highlight the lack of national capabilities in monitoring mining operations, observers said.
According to Kingai, the government’s weak response in monitoring mining activities or lack of it shows its cold-hearted attitude toward the safety of residents living downstream.
- Low-quality water
In a carefully worded statement, Barrick’s North Mara Gold Mine neither accepted nor denied the allegations but said the mine has lately experienced “an uncontrolled release of low-quality water to the environment” due to a pipe burst.
Barrick Gold’s group sustainability executive Grant Beringer said although the volume of water released was minor, the North Mara environmental team immediately sampled the receiving waterbodies.
“The preliminary water quality results show that there is no immediate impact on the receiving waterbodies and no risk to the community or the aquatic biodiversity of the river,” said Beringer, promising to continue sampling over the next few days and report the data to the authorities and communities.
The Mara Basin, which covers 13,750 square kilometers (5,309 square miles), is known globally for the annual wildebeest and zebra migration, which brings in millions of dollars in tourism.
The Mara River is key to the spectacle, as it is the only source of water during the dry season.
While the river’s flow has been erratic in recent years, observers said human activities such as a high level of water body abstraction for agriculture, hydroelectricity and tourism have been catalysts for rapid degradation.
Several gold mines are recklessly discharging toxic sludge with high levels of heavy metal deposits into the streams, which can endanger human and fish life.
“Our rivers are poisoned with mercury. Our homes get filled with dust from the heaps. Our children get sick from the pollution,” said Mwajuma Hamisi, a farmer in Tarime.