Lead mining in Zambia

Lead mining in Zambia


Kabwe is the capital of Zambia’s Central Province, a vast area in a vast country: consisting of eleven districts it shares borders with eight other Zambian provinces and covers nearly 95,000 square kilometers. Haut-Katanga, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 26 provinces, forms a promontory into Zambia, and thus forms a border with its Central Province. Katanga, as a whole, is famous for its mining sector and the same is true for Zambia’s Copperbelt Province (as it’s name would suggest), a Province that borders both the aforementioned provinces Central and Haut-Katanga on either side of the international border.

See “Little Shop” in Kabwe


With neighbours like these it is unsurprising that Central Province, too, has an active mining sector. But lead mining has been a cause of huge health problems for Kabwe, as can be seen by the need for the following remedial, large scale, investment:

The World Bank has approved a $65.6 million project to fund activities contributing to a reduction of environmental health risks from mining in Chingola, Kabwe, Kitwe and Mufulira, with emphasis on the historic lead pollution in Kabwe”; note: the other three locations being in the Copperbelt….In addition, the project will seek to enhance the institutional capacity of the Mines Safety Department, the Radiation Protection Authority and the Zambia Environmental Agency.”


As a researcher, what interests me in particular about this story is the interplay of Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM), both current and historic Large Scale Mining (LSM). As can be seen, I hope, this is a picture of nuances that challenges simplistic (mis)understandings of what activities are “good” or “bad”.

First, LSM. It was LSM that lead to the problem in the first place. Kabwe was Zambia’s oldest mine, operating for close on 100 years. Over time, and due to very poor mining practices historically, the problem has become very serious indeed: lead blood concentrations amongst Kabwe residents do not just reach levels normally associated with fatality, but in some cases are up to 60% above such levels. The river runs through the environs of the old mine and its smelter and through the city, a river that kids bathe in unaware of the dangers; dust clouds in the dry season also spread the pollution, meaning that come rain or shine the lead continues to reach resident’s bodies. The source of the pollution closed in 1994 but, without proper mine clean-up, the pollutants continue to be spread.

However, LSM is not the bad guy anymore. BMR Group PLC is a London-based company working on the recovery of lead and zinc tailings from Kabwe’s old mine; to be clear, BMR are in no way linked to the original pollution. Indeed, the firm is going about its task with a zeal for the environment that is in stark contrast to the original Kabwe mine management:

BMR will make be making a major contribution to the clean-up of Kabwe’s environment by removing almost 300,000 tonnes of lead and a similar amount of zinc from the different waste dumps during the life of the tailings re-treatment project. By re-processing the dumps in an environmentally responsible manner BMR will play a key role in contributing to public health and welfare and through employment, help to regenerate an economically depressed region.


One form of mining that continues to spread the pollutants is illegal Artisanal & Small-scale Mining (ASM). In the context of Kabwe, this is basically local people going through the tailings themselves looking to extract the valued mineral resources, but also – through a frequent lack of regard for their own health and safety – polluting their own selves, in particular, through their unauthorized entrepreneurship.


The issues around ASM are complicated. It is, after all, both a very important form of livelihood support for so many people in both developing and developed nations (the latter contrary to popular assumption, see my GOXI blog of September 2016; http://goxi.org/profiles/blogs/coal-not-dole-an-idea-we-should-dig-up-1). In 2002 the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) made an estimate of 30,000 for the number of Zambians directly working in ASM (page 11, link to http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/G00723.pdf), a figure that is likely to be far higher now in 2017. Moreover, with regards to the policy prize of “local content”, i.e. the proportion of services and labour sourced from domestic markets rather than internationally, ASM has an obvious head-start on LSM, albeit that international incidents relating to illegal immigration undertaken to conduct ASM are well known in other parts of Africa, not least Ghana (e.g. see this International Growth Centre report of 2015; link to https://www.theigc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Crawford-et-al-2015-Final-Report-1.pdf).

Having said that, the ASM “re-treatement” of tailings at Kabwe is illegal, unsafe and harmful to the environment.

I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has taken the decision to target its international development support to Zambia alongside just three other nations (namely: Rwanda, Malawi and Pakistan) and, moreover, has decided to target its Zambian support to Central Province (link to http://www.gov.scot/Topics/International/int-dev). There is now a great opportunity for practical, informed Scots civil society engagement with local partners in Zambia’s Central Region in order to make a positive and long-enduring difference on the ground for the benefit of the people of Kabwe and for future generations there. This is an opportunity that I relish as an independent, action-orientated, researcher.

Daniel Gilbert, Dundee, Scotland.