By ‘Fisayo Soyombo
VENTURES AFRICA — The Nigerian government is coming under increased pressure from aid organisations and rights groups for the release of US$5.4 million that had been promised as aid for lead-poisoned children in Zamfara State.
Although government officials keep sidestepping the subject, Nigerian and international specialists, aid workers, scientists and ministers from the northwestern state as well as local cultural leaders recently gathered at an international conference in the capital, Abuja, to devise a combined plan to clean up poisoned sites, test and treat affected residents, who are mostly children, enthrone safer mining practices.
In the last two years, more than 400 children are reported to have died while another 4,000 have been contaminated by acute lead poisoning in the state, with the Nigeria head of renowned international health NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Ivan Gayton, describing it as “one of the worst, if not the worst, lead-poisoning crises ever.”
In November 2011 the federal government committed US$5.4 million to help the poisoned children, but no amount has been released neither has the delay been explained, eight years on.
“Without delay, the $850 million naira from the ecological fund must be released in order to begin the environmental remediation and the safer mining programme in Zamfara State,” Gayton said at the close of the conference.
Thousands of children in Zamfara go untreated while their villages await remediation, excluding them from chelation [removing lead from the body] while they are continuously re-poisoned.
Lead poisoning is caused by artisanal mining practices in the gold-rich but destitute Zamfara, during which independent miners use crude hand tools to extract gold from crushed ore in their villages.
With the toxic dust contaminating soil, water, food and homes, children under five years of age are particularly susceptible to poisoning, as their bodies weigh much less and absorb far greater amounts of lead from the environment than adults. Similarly, children also ingest dust contaminated by lead more than any other age group, as they crawl on the ground and put dusty hands in their mouths.
The lead crisis peaked in 2010, when rapidly rising international gold prices (1 ounce of gold is valued at approximately $1,600) forced hordes of residents to turn to artisanal mining.
“The state government is doing all it can with its limited resources,” said Mouktar Lugga, Environment Commissioner for Zamfara State. “The state has been working with US-based environmental engineering firm Terragraphics to clean seven of the affected villages, while Geneva-based MSF has treated over 2,500 children under five.”
Still, no federal minister of mining, environment, or health attended the conference, and no concrete government action was announced.
“By not participating in the conference, the federal government sent a message that the political commitment to resolve this really isn’t there,” said Jane Cohen, an environmental health researcher with Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just about a symbolic message, it’s about whether or not the resources are there to now take action and, unfortunately, they’re just not.”
Speaking on behalf of government during the conference’s closing remarks, Professor Abdulsalami Nasidi, Project Director of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, assured of government concern in the matter.
“The federal government is regarding this problem not only as an emergency, but a chemical warfare declared on Nigerian children,” he said. “The government is obligated under international law to protect the rights of these people, and they’re really failing in this duty.”