By Cuthbert Otim
Uganda is endowed with variety of mineral deposits across the country according to the surveys conducted by the ministry of energy and mineral development.
This may look a blessing to the development of the country however, mineral extraction is rapidly inducing damage on the environment.
These include copper, tin, gemstones, limestone, marble, coltan and, of course, gold. Due to this plethora of mineral resources, Uganda has high hopes of using the development of the mineral sector to achieve both economic growth and to develop into a middle-income country in the near future.
And while the extraction and mining of minerals can provide the economic boost that Uganda requires, it is imperative to consider the environmental impacts that are associated with mining and how they may compromise the livelihoods of many Ugandans. Mining and the extraction of minerals result in environmental degradation at both the local and the global scale.
Francis Opolot, the Environment & Natural Resources Specialist at Soroti District Local Government says the main local environmental impacts include the contamination of water, soil, and air by a variety of heavy metal toxins.
Opolot explains that, when these toxins are present in water, soil, and air, they can have adverse health effects on people through drinking contaminated water, eating food grown in contaminated soil, and breathing contaminated air.
One heavy metal toxin in particular is a large problem for districts in Uganda with a prominent mining sector like Tiira gold mines in the eastern district of Busia.
The processing of ores in mining tends to release mercury, and strict precautions must be taken to manage it as even trace amounts are harmful to human health says Morris Tabora the inspect of minerals for eastern Uganda.
However, Aguttu Josephine, a secretary at Tiira small scale mining association in the eastern district of Busia, says mercury is used frequently in artisanal and small-scale mining in Uganda to assist with the extraction of gold and for them they are not aware of any health risks.
This poses a large problem as very few miners are aware of how mercury released into the environment can impact human health. It is estimated that about 150kg of mercury is released in the environment annually.
If dumped into water bodies, mercury can transfer downstream and become present in areas even where there is no mining. Since mercury is a pollutant that persists in the environment, it bio-accumulates in the environment, and increases its concentration in living organisms as it moves up the food chain explains Morris Tabaro, the inspector of minerals eastern Uganda.
Other pollutants that can pose health concerns and arise from mining include arsenic and cyanide. Cyanide is also widely used in artisanal and small-scale mining methods in Uganda.
The contamination of these pollutants into the environment not only has future impacts on human health, but also compromises the ability of the environment to perform its ecosystem goods and services.
Ecosystem services include water and air purification, climate regulation, erosion and flooding, the pollination of plants, and many more.
Eco-system goods include clean water, clean air, soil, and biomass for food and other uses such as fruit and wood.
‘When the ecosystem goods and services of the environment are impacted by environmental degradation, the livelihoods of all people become impacted as a healthy and functioning environment is threatened,’ said Opolot.
Furthermore, the global environmental impacts of mining can have local consequences. Mining includes the release of greenhouse gas emissions such as increased concentrations of methane, carbon dioxide, and sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere.
These global impacts can have a large impact on local climates, especially for countries and regions in sub-Saharan Africa.
Many of these regions rely heavily on their agricultural sector and also subsistence farming. The changes in rainfall amounts and patterns, temperature, and seasonality that are associated with atmospheric warming and climate change can have adverse effects on food production.
And with global food production requiring an increase of about 50 per cent by 2050 due to a growing population, the consequences of climate change in this respect could be dire. But it is possible to reduce the environmental impacts of mining.
This will be crucial for Uganda as they try to develop their mining sector and try to conserve the ecosystem goods and services of the environment at the same time. For mining to become more environmentally sustainable, certain measures can be taken.
These include reducing the consumption of water, minimizing the production of mining waste, preventing the pollution of soil, water, and air, and conducting successful mine closures and participating in environmental re-mediation of mining sites.