ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Residents in the southern state of Oromia in Ethiopia have suffered from an inexplicably high frequency of debilitating diseases and illnesses. Additionally, their newborns continually suffer from a high rate of birth defects. Locals claim the cause of their plight is water and soil contamination originating from the nearby gold mine. In 2018, protests over the Lega Dembi’s environmental impact erupted, leaving multiple dead. As a result, the government shut down the mine in order to conduct an investigation into the claims. However, a committee tasked with formulating a plan to reopen the mine has been created. This news has once again stimulated turmoil in the local population living near the mine.
The Lega Dembi’s Environmental Impact on Shakiso’s Residents
Women have experienced a startlingly high rate of miscarriages, and these afflictions have even affected the cattle. One 25-year-old, Jibo Buno of Oromia, for example, has endured five miscarriages and one stillbirth in a five-year period. Dube Udisa, a 38-year-old who used to wash in the ponds near the mine and now cannot walk as a result, said, “I didn’t know it was dangerous.” He also claims that there was no sign warning people of the water during that time.
According to an unreleased report of the government-authorized study, residents living near the mine have the highest rate of birth defects documented in the nation. Oromia is Ethiopia’s most inhabited region, yet the community has felt alienated by the government. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the dissension in the Guji region of Oromia has forced 80,000 people from their homes. It has also diminished the amount of aid reaching those in need and has severely impacted their access to nourishment. Around 40 million Ethiopians continue to endure the struggle of not having access to safe drinking water.
What Is the Ethiopian Government Doing?
After mounting concern over the Lega Dembi’s environmental impact led to intense protests in 2018, the government responded by suspending Midroc Gold’s license to operate the mine. The government, in turn, authorized many reports as well as a study that investigated the health issues afflicting residents near the mine. It also analyzed the “socio-economic impact” of the Lega Dembi mine. Midroc Gold, the mining firm that has operated the Lega Dembi mine since 1997, had also authorized a study that examined the mine’s environmental problems before their mining license renewal in 2018.
The government’s investigation found that the area surrounding Shakiso accounts for “the highest rate of birth defects in Ethiopia.” However, the Ethiopian government has not publicly disclosed the result of the study as of yet. The study accounted for roughly 3,000 households in 2018 and revealed 384 people who suffered from disabilities and chronic illnesses. Additionally, health issues plagued around 10% of the surveyed households, but the number doesn’t represent miscarriages or stillbirths.
The study also gives an account of the number of birth defects in the area and indicates that the ages of the youth affected by birth defects line up with the years that Midroc Gold was running the Lega Dembi mine. Lastly, the investigation shows that nearly all of the participants claim that they were never alerted of the hazard in utilizing the tailings ponds near the mine. The ponds act as a repository for waste, such as cyanide and mercury, leftover from mining. The second part of the government’s investigation hasn’t begun, but it will involve the testing of samples from residents.
Other Studies on the Lega Dembi’s Environmental Impact
Local leaders, mining experts and environmental scientists all agree on how to proceed in the matter. They say it is crucial to identify the origin and extent of pollution in the environment. Furthermore, communicating with the community living near the mine is essential before deciding on the reopening of the mining operation.
Addis Ababa University Business Enterprise PLC (AAUBE) conducted Midroc Gold’s 2018 environmental assessment. AAUBE determined that the mine poses grave environmental issues. According to AAUBE, “cyanide is present in the considerable amount[s]both in water and soil samples outside of the tailings dam in the license area.” Also, the report finds that two tailings ponds were commonly used for drinking water. Midroc Gold was unsuccessful in keeping the public from accessing the three tailings ponds. Despite the recent warning sign posted near these tailings ponds, people continually collect water from the contaminated sources.
Effects on Poverty Rates
While Ethiopia’s urban population experienced a substantial decrease in poverty from 26% in 2010 to 15% in 2016. The rural regions of Ethiopia, like the Guji area where Shakiso is located, have struggled with poverty. Rural areas only had a 4% decrease in poverty from 30% in 2010 to 26% in 2016. As Carolyn Turk, the World Bank’s Director for Ethiopia explains, “First, the poorest 10% of the population has not experienced real consumption growth between 2005 and 2016, suggesting that economic growth has so far eluded the poorest. Second, there is unequal access to basic necessities like education and clean water. […] this inequality of opportunity can translate into higher economic inequality for the future generation, negatively affecting inclusive growth.”
– Carlos Williams