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View of a former mine pit, now flooded, at the old mine site in Kabwe. In the foreground is an area where small-scale miners still work today. © 2019 Diane McCarthy for Human Rights Watch

(Lusaka) – Zambia’s government is delaying urgently needed action to clean up severe lead contamination in the city of Kabwe, the Alliance for Lead-Free Kabwe, a coalition of Zambian and international civil society organizations, said today.

The government should draft a technical proposal and seek support from donor agencies and companies responsible for the pollution to undertake a comprehensive clean-up of the former Kabwe mine, one of the most heavily lead-polluted sites in the world.

“It is inconceivable that 30 years after the mine’s closure, children in Kabwe still suffer lead poisoning and serious lifelong health impacts,” said Juliane Kippenberg, child rights associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The toxic mine needs to be cleaned up immediately to protect children’s health and lives.”

Kabwe is one of the world’s worst pollution hotspots because of contamination from a former lead and zinc mine established during the British colonial period. The mine was closed in 1994, but its toxic waste remains. Lead dust from its large, uncovered waste dumps blows across nearby residential areas, exposing up to 200,000 people to high levels of toxic lead. The situation is compounded by small-scale and informal mining activities at the former mine site.

In March 2022, President Hakainde Hichilema instructed the Ministry of Green Economy and Environment to establish a technical committee to “address and lead the process of comprehensive remediation” in Kabwe. However, after an initial informal meeting in June 2022, the technical committee was never formally set up. In 2023, the ministry announced its intention to make Kabwe a “Green City” where economic development takes place “on top of buried lead surfaces.” But it remains unclear how the ministry is planning to turn this vision into reality.

“We are disappointed by the government’s inaction,” said Namo Chuma, country director of Environment Africa Zambia. “The government should finally develop a tangible plan and time frame to tackle the toxic waste in Kabwe and consult civil society and affected communities in the process.”

Lead is a toxic metal with no safe level of exposure. It causes stunted growth, learning difficulties, memory loss, developmental delays, and many other irreversible health effects. It can also cause coma and death. Children and pregnant women are especially at risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists lead as one of 10 chemicals representing a “major public health concern.” According to medical research, over 95 percent of children living near the former mine in Kabwe have elevated lead levels in their blood, and half of them require urgent medical intervention.

In 2020, lawyers from South Africa and the United Kingdom filed a class action lawsuit in a South African court on behalf of affected children and women of child-bearing age in Kabwe. The lawsuit seeks compensation, a lead-screening system for children and pregnant women, and remediation of the area. The lawsuit contends that the mine was operated and managed by the company Anglo American between 1925 and 1974, while Anglo American argues it did not own or operate the mine, but only provided “technical services.”

In December 2023, the South African High Court refused to let the case proceed, describing it as an “unmanageable claim that would set a grave precedent.” Lawyers for the plaintiffs have announced they will appeal. Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to provide remedies when they caused or contributed to adverse impacts.

With a World Bank loan, Zambia’s government has undertaken some limited efforts to address the contamination in Kabwe, It has tested and treated some children and cleaned up a small number of homes and a highly polluted canal. But it has failed to clean up the source of the contamination, which makes its measures unsustainable, and any gains quickly reversed.

“The people of Kabwe are entitled to better than this,” said Father Gabriel Mapulanga, director of Caritas Zambia. “Immediate action is needed to make sure that children in Kabwe can enjoy the right to a healthy environment.”

For the Alliance for Lead-Free Kabwe:

  • Advocacy for Child Justice
  • Advocacy for Teen Mothers’ Education and Empowerment
  • Caritas Zambia
  • Centre for Environmental Justice
  • Children’s Alliance Zambia
  • Children’s Environmental Health Foundation
  • Conservation Advocates Zambia
  • Creative Thinkers Consulting
  • Environment Africa Zambia
  • Environment Savers of Zambia
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Keepers Zambia Foundation
  • Lifeline Childline Zambia
  • Media Network on Child Rights and Development
  • Paralegal Alliance Network
  • Prisoners’ Future Foundation
  • Save Environment and People Agency         
  • Zambian Governance Foundation
  • Zambia National Education Coalition 

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