By Namo Chuma and Juliane Kippenberg
“Janet” is a 4-year-old girl from Kabwe in Zambia’s Central Province who suffers from frequent headaches. She is unusually small for her age and often has difficulty remembering things. Recent blood tests have shown that she has extremely high lead levels in her blood, which would be consistent with her symptoms. Her mother is both worried about her daughter’s long-term health as well as angry, and says she wants to fight against the now closed lead and zinc mine that has made her daughter sick.
Kabwe is the site of a mine and smelter that polluted the environment with extremely high levels of toxic lead from 1904 to 1994. The mine was originally owned by British colonial companies, including Anglo American, and later nationalized by Zambia. It was closed in 1994, but the mine’s waste was never cleaned up, and even now, open waste dumps continue to pollute nearby residential areas such as Kasanda, Chowa, and Makululu.
As a result, tens of thousands of children in these areas are at acute risk of severe illness and have some of the highest blood lead levels in the world. Medical researchers estimate that over 95 percent of children living near the former mine have elevated blood-lead levels, and about half of them have blood lead levels past a threshold requiring urgent medical intervention.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, an international expert body, will examine the state of children’s rights in Zambia on 23 and 24 May. The Committee’s session is part of its country review system, checking how well the Zambian government puts into practice its duties under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it has ratified.
We have spoken to Kabwe residents about the devastating impact of the contamination on people’s lives. Parents in Kabwe’s affected neighborhoods have told us that they are scared about their children’s health and feel helpless because there is little government support. Their fears are not unfounded. Some parents have found that their children have serious difficulties concentrating and retaining information in school—memory loss and lack of concentration are typical symptoms for lead exposure. Lead can also cause hearing loss, vision loss, high blood pressure, developmental delays, and even coma, convulsions, and death. Children are especially at risk.
A group of teenagers and young adults in Kabwe has decided to speak out on the problem of lead pollution and formed a youth group to push for change. Janet’s mother has joined the group. They work with Zambian civil society groups and the Catholic Church to advocate for a full clean-up and restoration of people’s rights. Several Kabwe residents have also joined a class action lawsuit in South Africa against Anglo American.
Children are suffering serious violations of their rights to health and to a healthy environment in Kabwe. We hope that the situation in Kabwe will be a priority in the UN Committee’s deliberations. The Zambian government should develop a plan for a comprehensive clean-up of the former mine site to remove or contain the toxic mine and smelter waste. As a first step, the government should commission a technical plan and budget that lays out what successful remediation would look like for Kabwe.
In addition, all affected residential areas in Kabwe need to be cleaned up, all children in need should have access to quality affordable treatment for lead poisoning, and ongoing small-scale mining in lead-contaminated waste piles poses a serious health hazard and should be prohibited. Finally, those who have suffered adverse impacts on their rights should have access to a remedy, including compensation.
The government of Zambia, with a World Bank loan, is currently undertaking some efforts to address the problem. The Zambia Mining and Environmental Remediation and Improvement Project is testing and treating children—including Janet—and cleaning up a small number of homes, a school, and a highly polluted canal. While these are important steps, they do not tackle the source of the contamination, the mine waste itself. As long as the waste is not cleaned up, other measures are not sustainable, and any progress made will quickly be reversed.
A strong recommendation from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child toward comprehensive remediation of the mine waste could help protect the future of children in Kabwe—including Janet.
Namo Chuma is the director of Environment Africa, a non-governmental organisation based in Kabwe. Juliane Kippenberg is associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.