The Congo river threatened by pollution from mining waste, fear for Kinshasa and Brazzaville

Posted on September 1, 2021


Through Debbo Mballo – September 1, 2021

At the end of July 2021, the Tshikapa and Kasai rivers were polluted with toxic substances after a mine waste dam failed in Angola. While this pollution severely affects the populations of the Kasai province in the center of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Congolese authorities fear an environmental crisis on a regional scale with a probable contamination of the Congo River.

In Tshikapa, the main town of Kasai province, concern is growing. It has been nearly a month now that people can no longer fish for freshwater fish in the Kasai and Tshikapa rivers.

These two rivers that cross the city have been polluted by toxic products killing thousands of fish. The first carcasses were noticed by fishermen between July 31 and August 1. Both rivers had taken on a reddish color.

“It is a serious food crisis in addition to the environmental one which threatens the populations”

Sosthène Kambidi, correspondent for the local online media Actualite.CD in Kasaï, said:

“The pollution started in Angola in the province of Lunda Norte which borders with that of Kasai. It is the diamond company Catoca Mining Company which dumped toxic waste in the Tshikapa river which has its source in this region. However, this river, which serves as the natural border between Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, flows into the Kasai river at the level of the town of Tshikapa ”.

Today the water is returning to its normal color. But it is no longer possible to exploit the rivers: the government has banned the consumption of these waters, we do not know how long it will last and there are no more fish.

This pollution constitutes a real threat to the economy of the city which mainly depends on these two rivers. It is through the Kasai River that Tshikapa is supplied with food from the town of Ilébo more than 600 km to the north. With the prohibition to be in contact with water, it is no longer possible to convey the goods. Also, the market garden products cultivated on the banks were also polluted. And women can no longer sell fresh fish caught in rivers. The activities of diamond miners on the waterways have also been suspended.

In addition to the environmental crisis, it is a serious food crisis that looms.

In a statement released on August 9, 2021 and consulted by Reuters, the Angolan largest diamond mining company Catoca said that following a ruptured spillway at a from its mine waste dams, tailings would have spilled into a waterway on July 27, without further details.

It would be ferrosilicon, an alloy used to condense diamond ore. But according to Jeune Afrique, a Kinshasa veterinary laboratory says it has found significant amounts of iron and nickel in the water samples analyzed.

“Populations are exposed to carcinogenic and water-borne diseases”

In the city of Tshikapa, several thousand people are affected by this large-scale pollution, according to provincial authorities.

Contacted by the editorial staff of France 24 Observers, Julie Ochano, president of the NGO “Binadamu in action” and member of the Women’s Network for the Development of Kasai (RFDK) already warns of the health crisis that this ecological tragedy could generate.

Several women were washing with the waters of these rivers. And households used it as drinking water or to prepare food. In Tshikapa, not everyone has access to drinking water.

In the early hours of the pollution, even the hippos and crocodiles that are in the waterways died. They were eaten by the people. Even today, artisanal fishermen defy the ban on consuming river products and clandestinely resell these contaminated fish in the city’s markets.

Populations bathing in the Tshikapa river in August in Kasai province.

In fact, populations are exposed to carcinogenic diseases and also to water-borne diseases, especially women. A health zone in the city has already warned of the increase in cases of diarrhea.

The authorities must respond urgently to limit the damage. It has been almost a month since the pollution was noticed but so far the populations have not received any humanitarian assistance. Not even the slightest medicine.

The powerless provincial authorities

When contacted, Dieudonné Piemé, the provincial governor of Kasai, said he was helpless in the face of the disaster. But warns that the situation could worsen on a regional scale:

In light of the degree of pollution that we have recorded, it is obvious that the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville [Editor’s note, respective capitals of DR Congo and Congo separated by the Congo River] are particularly threatened. The provinces of Mai-Ndonbé and Kwilu have already been affected. These are the last provinces before the Kasai River spilled into the Congo River.

But we do not have enough resources to provide direct answers to this unprecedented problem. For the moment we are still in the assessment of the damage. The losses are enormous. We have lost almost all of our fishing population but also crops that were carried out along the banks.

Work is being done to determine the exact needs of the disaster victims. And the central government has been instructed to deploy humanitarian assistance. But at our level we have called for community solidarity so that those who have not been affected come to the aid of the victims.

Unfortunately, it will take a long time for the situation to return to normal.

Friday, August 27, 2021, Jean-Jacques Mbungan, Congolese Minister of Health, assured that emergency medical kits will be distributed to the populations and the establishment of drinking water supply points. The next day, a delegation led by Eve Bazaïba, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the environment, also went there to reassure the populations and local elected officials.

A tripartite meeting is expected to take place between the environment ministers of DR Congo, Congo and Angola. According to the provincial governor of Kasai, “it is certainly the polluter pays principle that will have to apply for ecological compensation and possibly compensation for people who have been affected”.


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