• In early August, reports began to surface of a major toxic runoff spill from Angolan diamond mines into rivers flowing into the DRC’s waterways.
  • The spill turned hundreds of kilometers of tributaries of the Congo River to a dark red hue and is believed to have killed at least 12 people in the DRC.
  • Satellite analysis indicates that the spill originated from the Catoca diamond mine in the Angolan province of Lunda Sul, whose main shareholders are state companies from Angola and Russia.
  • While Catoca operators have admitted a spill from the mine tailings pond, they downplayed its seriousness and deny that toxic substances were released.

What happens when an environmental disaster strikes in an isolated area on the outskirts of the world’s attention? The past six weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola suggest the answer is: not much.

In early August, reports began to surface that the waters of the Tshikapa and Kasai rivers had turned brownish red. Dead fish floated on the surface and washed up on the banks. Thousands of people have fallen ill with episodes of diarrhea after drinking the water, and local authorities have reported that hippos and other large animals have been found dead.

It was, in the words of researchers from the University of Kinshasa, an “unprecedented environmental and human catastrophe”. The university’s Congo Basin Water Resources Research Center (CRREBaC) said the pollution was likely caused by discharges from industrial diamond mines in Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul provinces in the north. from Angola, where provincial authorities have reported similar signs of a spill, including massive fish deaths and water discoloration. During a press conference on September 2, the DRC’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Eve Bazaiba, said at least 12 people had died and thousands more fell ill.

More than six weeks later, there are still few definitive answers on the cause of the pollution, who is responsible for it and what the long-term impacts will be on affected communities and ecosystems. Raphaël Tshimanga, a CRREBaC scientist, said he was baffled by the lack of international attention and the slowness of the regional response so far.

“It’s actually a serious disaster,” he told Mongabay. “The river was red for over a month, and it’s a big river, in places it’s over a mile wide.”

According to satellite data analyzed by VisioTerra in France, the source of the release was the Catoca diamond mine in Angola, which began leaking red material from its tailings pond into the Tshikapa River between July 20 and July 25. The footage follows a reddish pollution front winding its downstream over the following weeks, eventually reaching the Kasai River in DRC.

Satellite imagery taken of the waterways near Catoca in Angola on July 25, 2021, showing flow heading towards the Tshikapa River. Image and analysis courtesy of VisioTerra and Sentinel.eu.

Catoca, the fourth largest diamond mine in the world, produces nearly 7 million carats of diamonds per year and, according to documents filed by the company, in 2019 it recorded more than $ 800 million in sales. The main shareholders of Catoca are Endiama, the Angolan state diamond company, and Alrosa, a Russian state company. Alrosa is the industry’s largest producer, supplying a quarter of the world’s diamonds.

“It’s not just a few small players who are involved, it’s some of the biggest players in the diamond industry,” said Hans Merket, researcher at the International Peace Information Service. “Alrosa is number one, he’s not an obscure player.”

In a September 3 press release, Catoca operators admitted that an accident had occurred in the mine tailings pond, but denied that the landfill contained heavy metals or toxins, calling it “sand and clay” and likening it to “mudslides in the rain”. season.”

But Catoca’s claim that the spill was not dangerous does not match reports from Lunda Norte provincial authorities of dead fish and crocodiles in the Lova and Tshikapa (or Chicapa in Angola) rivers that run along the river. diamond processing facility.

“The damage reported includes the death of fish on the banks of the Chicapa River. Pastoralists are struggling to provide drinking water for their animals and some cattle, including goats, have died, ”Cláudio Muteba, provincial director of environment, waste management and community services, told Mongabay. in Lunda Norte.

Angola’s environment ministry said it had sent specialists to communities along the rivers to assess the damage, but no results have yet been made public. On September 9, Angolan Secretary of State for the Environment, Paola Francisco, told local media that investigations were underway.

DRC officials have not been allowed to visit Catoca or other nearby mines to test the water for toxins, preventing them from carefully examining the company’s claims.

“It’s up to them to prove that the landfill really did not contain toxic substances,” Tshimanga said. “They should agree to an investigation from both parties and let samples be taken from the source downstream so that we can analyze them. This is the easy way for them to prove it.

Satellite images taken on July 25 and August 9, 2021 show severe discoloration due to pollution of the Kasai River in DRC. Image and analysis courtesy of VisioTerra and Sentinel.eu.

While officials in the DRC have called for restitution to be paid for the spill, a source at the Angolan foreign ministry told Mongabay that a meeting between the two governments scheduled for the end of the month has been postponed.

Tshimanga said the lack of cooperation between Angola and the DRC to determine the cause of the pollution is proving costly, as the delays make it more difficult to determine the extent of the disaster and whether there are other risks.

“There is a kind of irresponsibility somewhere,” he said. “There are people out there who are not doing their job. From a political point of view, I don’t know what is going on.

During her September 2 press conference, Eve Bazaiba said that preliminary testing of water samples taken from the Kasai River (known as Cassai in Angola) showed high levels of heavy metals like iron. and nickel. Tshimanga told Mongabay that the University of Kinshasa expects more detailed results expected early next week. But without being able to compare them with samples from near the Catoca mine, there’s no way to say for sure if the toxins are coming from there.

On September 9, Alrosa announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the DRC’s state-owned mining company, Société Minière de Bakwanga (MIBA), committing to “the dynamic and efficient implementation of future mining projects. ‘diamond mining’.

For heavily indebted MIBA, the deal is a lifeline that Congolese officials may be reluctant to jeopardize with aggressive pressure to hold Catoca responsible for the spill, Merket said.

“The DRC state-owned diamond miner has been in trouble for ten years, has huge debts and is not producing. They need a lot of support, so of course when a big miner like Alrosa, who they’ve been negotiating with for a while, is ready to give that support, it can make them quieter in a situation like this. ci, ”he said. noted.

Diamonds are notoriously difficult to trace, but Merket told Mongabay that the scale of Catoca’s operations makes it almost certain that gems produced from the mine often end up on the wrists and earlobes of consumers in countries. rich.

“Some of these diamonds will be for industrial use, but they will also be used for jewelry in the major consumer markets of the United States, China and Japan,” he said.

Alrosa’s North American Operations Manager, Rebecca Foerster, is listed as President of Diamonds Do Good, a non-profit organization that “celebrates the positive impact diamonds have on communities around the world.”

Pirogues on the Kasai River with forests on the opposite bank.  Image by Terese Hart via Flickr.
Pirogues on the Kasai River in DRC before the spill. Image by Terese Hart via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0).

In southern DRC, the Kasai River has returned to its normal color after a month of red hue, but Tshimanga told Mongabay that cases of illness related to water consumption continue to be recorded. He said he feared locals still did not fully grasp the severity of the disaster.

“The pollutants have not disappeared, they are still in the rivers. And these pollutants can now also enter the food chain, via fish, etc. People are using these rivers and these resources, and this is a situation where we have seen the imminent impact, but we also expect to see impacts in the medium and long term, ”he said.

As communities in the Kasai River basin on both sides of the border await news of what made the river red and sick, as well as who – if any – will take responsibility for the spill, Tshimanga said. that it was time for the world to start paying more attention to it.

“The two countries have signed international conventions on biodiversity and sustainability, on pollution, management of water resources in transboundary rivers, etc. “, did he declare. “It is the responsibility of the world to act as one and ensure that these practices and behaviors are discouraged. “

Sylvain-Gauthier Kabemba and Borralho Ndomba contributed to this report.

Banner image: The Catoca mine in Angola in 2020. Image via Catoca’s 2019 annual report.

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