Changes in Climate Trends Impacting Livelihoods and Food Security in the Sahel and West Africa
New evidence of changing climate trends in the Sahel and West Africa and their potentially profound implications for food security and regional stability has been released on Dec. 5 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, adding to the pressure on governments to stay on a course to reach a new international climate agreement.
A joint study has analyzed regional trends in temperature, rainfall, droughts and flooding over the past 40 years and their implications for the availability of natural resources, livelihoods, migration and conflict in 17 West African countries from the Atlantic coast to Chad.
The analysis detects significant changes in regional climatic conditions, including an overall rise in mean seasonal temperature from 1970 to 2006 of approximately 1°C, with a greater increase of between 1.5°C to 2°C observed in far eastern Chad and northern Mali and Mauritania.
The study shows that the frequency of floods and the area covered by flooding have increased in parts of the region over the past 24 years, for example with large areas of southern Burkina Faso, western Niger and northern Nigeria experiencing up to 10 floods during this period.
The report, Livelihood Security: Climate Change, Migration and Conflict in the Sahel, uses an innovative mapping process to identify 19 "climate hotspots" where climatic changes have been the most severe and which warrant focused adaptation planning and other follow-up activities.
Many of the hotspots are in the central part of the Sahel, in Niger, Burkina Faso, northern and coastal Ghana, as well as northern Togo, Benin and Nigeria.
Common to these hotspots is that they have been most heavily affected by flooding, although they have also experienced slow-onset changes, in particular in temperature and the occurrence of drought, and these varying conditions have affected the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on natural resources.
The study has found that the impacts of such changing climatic conditions on the availability of natural resources, combined with factors such as population growth and weak governance, have led to greater competition over scarce resources and to changing migration patterns in the region.
For example, among its findings the analysis shows that:
Pastoralists are mainly affected by changes in rainfall that occur in the arid and semi-arid areas of the Sahel and influence the availability of shrubs, grasses and water sources for livestock. Their traditional migration patterns are increasingly being replaced by a more permanent southward shift;
Competition for freshwater, coastal resources and land among fishermen, farmers and pastoralists as well as new migrants is increasing, and in some cases leading to heightened tensions and conflict, most notably in the area surrounding Lake Chad;
Large areas of Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger faced between six and ten drought seasons between 1982 and 2009, with smaller pockets experiencing between 11 and 15, with some communities requiring emergency assistance. Togo experienced between one and two droughts over the same period.
In combination with changing rainfall patterns, seasonal droughts have already contributed to changes in livelihoods. For example, there is a shift to agropastoralism (combining farming and livestock breeding) which is seen as a strategy to mitigate increasing climate uncertainties.
Early movements south and towards the coast by pastoralists, as a result of changing climatic conditions, can result in increased competition for resources and the destruction of crops in the receiving areas, and lead to conflicts with farming communities. One example was during a drought and locust plague in Niger in 2005 which led to shortfall in crop yield of 4.6 million tons, which forced herders to migrate south and to dry season grazing grounds in Nigeria earlier than usual, and also resulted in higher prices leaving poorer households unable to purchase food.
The increased frequency and severity of climate-related disasters—such as floods and drought—as well as future sea-level rise, could lead to more permanent migration over time;
Major urban centers such as Accra, Kano, Niamey, Nouakchott and Ouagadougou are located within areas most affected by the observed changes in climate. It is estimated that sea-level rise of up to 1 meter would directly affect more than three million people in the region, including residents of major urban centers situated on the coast.
The frequency and severity of flooding has increased in the Sahel and West Africa, allowing for less recovery time for farmland and pastures between floods, resulting in increased risk of deaths, massive population displacement and of crop and cattle losses;
The data shows that areas affected by large-scale conflicts, particularly Chad and northern Niger, have also been affected by changes in climate. Although the study does not try to show any direct linkage between changes in climate and conflicts, people living in areas that have been affected by conflict can be considered as more vulnerable to the effects of changing climatic conditions, compared to more politically stable areas.
The study was conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations University (UNU) and the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), with technical input from the University of Salzburg's Centre for Geoinformatics (Z_GIS).
UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, raised the issue of food security as a potential risk of climate change during the debate on climate change and security in the UN Security Council in July this year.
Mr Steiner said that with livelihoods and food security in the region heavily dependent on natural resources, further impacts of climate change on ecosystems could be dramatic.
"This analysis underlines how competition between communities for scarce resources, especially land, water and forests, is already a reality in West Africa and that regional cooperation will be key to diffusing tensions, managing down the risks and curtailing the possibilities of increased conflict and environmentally-induced migration," Mr Steiner said.
"The study also speaks to the negotiations under the UN climate convention taking place here in Durban spotlighting the urgent need for scaled-up investments in adaptation, moving forward on the Green Fund and supportive measures such as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation as well as realizing the climate finance of US$100 billion a year by 2020," he said.
The CILSS Executive Secretary, Professor Alhousseini Bretaudeau, said that it was necessary to analyze the impacts of climate change on migration and conflict in order to improve adaptation strategies in the Sahel and take efficient counter-action.
"This cooperation between the international community and CILSS represents a milestone in taking large-scale action jointly—in particular the production of scientific knowledge that will lead to a better understanding of climate change impacts on migration and conflict in this very fragile Sahelian region—for the benefit of the population," Prof. Bretaudeau said.
"The relationship between climate change, migration and conflict remains complex, however, with climate change threatening the integrity of ecosystems that are already made vulnerable by a rapidly growing population, it is evident that this situation will exacerbate competition over natural resources and trigger further movements of people and new conflicts," he said.
Prof. Jakob Rhyner, Vice Rector of the United Nations University, added "especially as the relation between climate change, migration is very complex, we need to further assess the hotspots area. Speaking at the report launch in Durban, he continued, "We have to provide negotiators, governments as well as practitioners on the ground, what they need to know about the potential impacts of climate change and human mobility in order to prepare appropriate legal, institutional, and governance approaches."
The project set out to analyze the historical climate trends in the region, identify 'hotspots' and determine the potential implications for natural-resource led livelihoods, building on existing knowledge that the Sahel has long been subject to considerable climate variability unrelated to anthropogenic climate change.
The study also concluded that migration can be seen as part of the solution, as seasonal and circular migration can be considered as a traditional adaptation strategy in the region. Many communities are already planning for the potential impacts of climate change and are employing innovative small-scale adaptation initiatives, such as cooperation between villages in the sustainable use of local land.
Importantly, the report provides recommendations for improving conflict and migration sensitivity in adaptation planning, investments and policies across the region.
The key recommendations include:
Adopt climate change adaptation policies and programmes that are migration and conflict-sensitive and that aim to reduce livelihood vulnerability, promote alternatives, and improve the availability and access to natural resources. This should be done in order to mitigate the drivers of migration and conflict and help secure development gains.
Promote regional environmental cooperation in addressing climate change, migration and conflict. Issues of climate change and migration are regional in nature, and as such should not only be managed at the national level, as is most commonly the case today.
Root national adaptation policies in the "green economy" and promote the creation of green jobs and sustainable farming practices, in order to enhance food security and increase the resilience to climate stressors.
Strengthen preventive action, environmental diplomacy, resource rights and dispute resolution to take early action to defuse both imminent threats and broader instability.
Prioritize systematic data collection and early warning systems. The systematic collection of climate data should be established and improved throughout the region, notably through the establishment of a comprehensive network of weather stations.
Use conflict and/or migration risk to prioritize investments and build donor commitment to long-term engagement in the Sahel. Addressing climate change impacts on livelihoods in the Sahel requires long-term financial commitment and improved coordination of investments.
Conduct follow-up field assessments in the hotspots identified using a livelihoods approach to determine how resource availability is changing, how livelihoods are being affected, and if incidences of conflict or migration are increasing, in order to inform adaptation strategies and interventions.
The study aims to support decision-makers in the region's Member States, adaptation and peacebuilding practitioners worldwide, as well as ongoing international climate change negotiations.
To download the report, Livelihood Security: Climate Change, Migration and Conflict in the Sahel, visit:
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.