MINING & SOCIAL ISSUES with Ignatius Kamwanje: EHS of ASM in Malawi

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MINING & SOCIAL ISSUES with Ignatius Kamwanje

Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) of Artisanal Small-Scale Mining in Malawi

Artisanal and Small-scale mining is defined as a single unit of mining operations usually characterised as informal, illegal and unregulated by most governments. It is undercapitalized, utilizing simple tools, lacking in technology and hazardous under labour intensive conditions. However, it is a source of income for those living in rural, remote, and poor areas of the country hence these miners are described as poor people or small groups who are largely dependent on mining for sustenance. Artisanal and small-scale mining in Malawi is at oftentimes carried out informally, characterised by archaic methods of extraction leading to adverse effects and consequences on human health and safety in communities where such type of mining activities take place. Due to its unregulated nature, participation in artisanal and small-scale mining breeds safety risks and hazards, environmental degradation and detrimental effects on education and personal health practices.

Artisanal and small-scale mining activities in Malawi have grown considerably in recent years and are a source of livelihood for many families in rural areas. In 2016, it was estimated that there were about 25,000 in Malawi with 65% licenced ones and some are unaccounted for though by 2018 there are about 40,000 of them.

One of the most popular issues in mining is non-compliance with occupational health safety standards. Many small-scale mining operations are said to be lacking in the following:

  • safety regulations
  • reinforcement of mine safety requirements
  • awareness of the risks inherent in mining
  • access to better equipment.

These factors lead to higher health risks and poorer working conditions in small scale mining compared to formal and large-scale mining.

(a)         Environment

Small scale miners are exposed to harmful effects of physical, biological, chemical and ergonomic hazards. These operations are exposed to safety and health hazards due to contamination of the larger environment through run offs, air, ground contamination from landslides and subsidence.

The main primary effect of artisanal and small-scale mining is leachate of mine tailings that contaminate ground water. The whole groundwater system is heavily polluted with heavy and toxic metals, organic chemicals that areapplied during mineral separation and some waste material that is released. Some plants absorb polluted water and this may contain disease pathogens. The adverse effects of small scale mining to the environment include:

  • contamination of water due to improper waste
  • disposal from mines
  • erosion in the mining sites
  • mercury and cyanide poisoning
  • contamination of rivers and lakes
  • river siltation and pollution affecting drinkin water.

The major environmental impacts are of visual in nature. Poor waste management practices are particularly extensive due to lack of established waste disposal facilities. The impact of mining on air quality is limited to the generation of dust. These fines are washed away by rainfall and may be transported by either suspension or siltation into the river system.

Potential environmental impacts of artisanal and small-scale mining on rivers could be changes in hydrology and water quality, as a result of land clearing, soil erosion and land degradation due to mining and processing activities. Changes in hydrology can alter available hydrological habitat for aquatic biota, and increased turbidity may lead to smothering of aquatic habitats. Clearing of vegetation, unregulated sewage from mining camps and rubbish disposal can impact on the rivers nutrient concentrations and habitats. With artisanal and small -scale mining especially gold, these environmental impacts are temporarily variable due to the fact that there is high demand for water during dry seasons and excess water in wet seasons altering the flow of the river/stream. Further, degradation of the river water quality and ecology can have flow-on impacts to fishing and suitability for drinking. Artisanal and small-scale mining brings toxins, including heavy metals that can migrate downward and contaminate aquifers.

(b)         Health

Artisanal and small-scale mining is associated with devastating health impacts for both men and women, but as work on the fields is often quite segregated, the health impacts are quite specific. Miners are particularly susceptible to negative impacts on health.

The main diseases possibly occurring due to artisanal and small-scale mining include silicosis, cancer, pneumoconiosis, TB, abnormal lung function. While men work primarily in the mines, women and children can work both in and around the mines and at home, balancing mining and household responsibilities. This blend of mining and household work results in an array of health problems for miners, family members and surrounding communities. Women are often involved in processing and waste disposal, exposing them to harmful chemicals, neurological damage, and dust, which can lead to asthma or lung disease with severe consequences for family well-being and health, including during pregnancy.

In Malawi, measurements of pulmonary function, respiratory symptoms, quantitative assessment of mercury exposures and other toxic metals as well as health risks that these activities and the surrounding communities are exposed, are either lacking, partly done or not compiled as far as artisanal small-scale mining is concerned. There is also not much information on existing data on cardiovascular and respiratory health, WASH, sexual, psychosocial health and nutrition. Malawi, like any other SADC country, has registered high rates of lung disease occurrence. This has been attributed to poor working conditions in mines and HIV-AIDS prevalence. The seasonal and migratory nature of artisanal and small-scale mining can lead to high-risk behaviour that can facilitate the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV and AIDS/HIV infection coupled with occupational exposure to dust are important risk factors for tuberculosis, particularly among the miners. Occupation Safety, Health and Environment need to be promoted in order to protect miners and their families (Malunga GWP,2018). The absence of regular environmental audit, inspection,   monitoring to small-scale miners by the responsible government body and limited access to healthcare services makes it very difficult to attribute to specific diseases that are associated with the impacts of small scale mining operations on the environment.

(c)          Safety

Mining work is both lucrative and hazardous and for this reason, the frequency of accidents and injuries is very high. Mine accidents range from collapse of walls to a total caving of mine tunnels, which often lead to fatal trapping of mine workers, landslide, lack of air, emission and extraction of noxious gas. These are also applied to underground artisanal and small-scale mining. Most of the relevant causes of accidents among small scale miners are:

  • rock falls and subsidence
  • use of poorly maintained equipment
  • non-compliance on wearing proper personal
  • protective equipment
  • Erosion
  • Suffocation
  • Poisoning
  • Explosions
  • unsafe acts and conditions.

Recently the ILO (International Labour Organization)   reported that occupational fatality rate in small scale mining in developing countries rose up to 90 times higher than in   industrialized countries. In countries where artisanal and small-scale mining is practised, the frequency of mine accidents is so high that national authorities worry about their continued operations and start to take steps to outlaw the activity. In Malawi, the spate of mine accidents has increased considerably with the growth of artisanal and small-scale mining as a business and it has been observed that most of these activities take place without the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) . This is a serious health and safety concern.

Artisanal and small-scale mining is inherently risky, but little is known about mining-associated hazards and injuries in Malawi since there is no updated data. Data obtained from the National Compensation Commission from 2000 to 2011 comprising industrial occupational injuries, mining alone   indicated that injuries accounted for 1.9% of 2034 accidents. However, it did not specify as to what type of injuries had the biggest contribution, what safety measures were implemented, which type of mining section (large or small scale) was affected most, the contributing factors(hazards), consequences and preventive measures that were existing and also the ones that could be implemented. The negative impact of poor work conditions is unappreciated and the scientific basis for interventions and policy formulation is to a great extent absent in Malawi.

During a site visit in areas where alluvial gold mining by artisanal and small-scale mining is taking place in Malawi (Mangochi and Lilongwe districts), children of school-going age were either seen absenting or dropping out from school to engage in these activities. In many cases, these children are income earners providing for household incomes. Almost all work performed by children in artisanal and small-scale mining is hazardous and has characteristics that fit the definition of a “worst form of child labour” under ILO Convention No. 182 (International Labour Organization, 2005). It is difficult, however, to eliminate or limit the participation of children in artisanal and small-scale mining, given its transient and informal nature and associated levels of poverty. But participation of these children has serious safety implications.

Generally, artisanal and small-scale mining is one of the worst forms of child labour because of widespread and severe hazards that risk death, injury and disease (ILO 2005). Children undertake risky tasks such as heavy lifting, digging, ore haulage and transport of ore/waste. Child labour includes children working and being exposed to most hazardous conditions, involvement in prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse and violence. Some of them often become slaves to mine owners or pit owners who employ them and work throughout the day without having enough rest. Despite the often-high risk of injuries and fatalities associated with these activities, economic considerations remain the main  motivation for children to abandon school. Poor regulation of health and safety expose them to extreme risks. Women also often suffer from crime, gangsterism, domestic violence and rape and are forced into prostitution. This is also a serious health and safety problem.


This piece was initially published in Malawi’s Mining & Trade Review Issue Number 65 (September 2018).

The full edition is available for download here. This monthly publication is edited by Marcel Chimwala.


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