Friday 23 June 2017

Mercury Pollution: A growing environmental health risk in Uganda.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. The Convention is named after the Japanese city Minamata symbolizing the devastating incident the city went through of mercury poisoning. This Convention is a result of three (3) years of meeting and negotiating, later adopted by 140 countries on 19 January 2013 in Geneva. It is envisaged to enhance the reduction of mercury pollution from the targeted activities responsible for release of mercury to the immediate environment.

Uganda is signatory to the Minamata Convention but yet to ratify it. Positively, some actions are being done at National level to address mercury pollution, for example, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) is implementing a project on the development of Minamata Convention on Mercury initial assessment in Africaaimed at facilitating the ratification and early implementation of the Minamata Convention whilst providing key national stakeholders with scientific, technical knowledge and tools needed to support the ratification of the Convention.

Noting continued indiscriminate dumping and burning of toxic waste(composed of nickel/cad-mium compounds), due to weak legislation on pollution, Uganda risks worsening levels of heavy metal pollution.With the increasing heavy metals presence has been noted in Lake  Victoria  with main sources being  industrial and  domestic  waste  as  well  as  small-scale  gold  mining activities that continue to use Mercury. 

It is worth noting that early ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury provides an opportunity for the global community to address this mounting problem before it gets worse contributing to reduction in mercury pollution from the specific human activities responsible for the most significant mercury releases to the environment.

According to UNEP, Mercury releases from Artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) is estimated to be about 1400 tonne/year. At national level, NEMA estimates total annual mercury releases in society at 26.4 tonne/year with high concentrations in air, water and land. The current Mercury stockpiles include cement production, incineration of hazardous waste, imported cosmetics and related products and dental Mercury amalgam fillings. It should be noted that Mercury to amalgamate gold is mostly smuggled into Uganda and supplied by Gold buyers to small scale artisanal miners all over the country.

Myriad by multiplicity of Conventions, complicity of the Mining sector coupled with limited information on ASGM, Uganda risks acute environmental health risks associated with heavy metal pollution such as Mercury.

However, steps are being taken to address such related challenging. One such step is the development of Mercury Initial Assessment Communication Strategy for Uganda. However, for the strategy to benefit the country, it should be linked to Vision 2040 so as to achieve a more employable and productive economy for increased productivity.

Addressing Mercury pollution should be holistic and follow an integrated approach where issues relating to supply and trade of mercury must be addressed first.

Complied by; Peninah Atwine
Fellow at EMLI Bwaise Facility