Health in Africa

Extracting a radioactive disaster in Niger

For 40 years, French firms have been extracting uranium ore in the heart of the Sahara. But instead of benefiting, local communities in Niger have suffered in misery

 
By Abhijit Mohanty
Last Updated: Tuesday 05 March 2019
Taureg
A pastoralist with his flocks in the Sahara. Representational Photo. Credit: Getty Images A pastoralist with his flocks in the Sahara. Representational Photo. Credit: Getty Images

They are some of the poorest people on earth. Ignored by their government, earning their daily bread and fetching potable drinking water is a part of their daily struggle.

Niger, with a population of more than 17 million, remains one of the poorest countries on the planet as per the development index of the United Nations. More than 60 per cent of its population survives on less than $1 a day. The average life expectancy is only 45 and one in four children die before the age of five.  

But there is something beyond the innumerable indicators of chronic poverty that gives worldwide attention to Niger. Also known as the Uranium Capital of Africa’, Niger is the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium ore that provides 7.5 per cent of the world mining output. 

Despite having uranium in abundance, the people of Niger have hardly received any benefits, but have suffered severe misery in return, claim civil societies advocating for an equitable distribution of revenues from mining.

Let us look at the reasons as to why this state of affairs persists. 

France: The old colonial master

The interest of France in Niger dates back to the colonial era; however the discovery of untapped uranium reserves in the country further reinforced this interest. It is France that gets the real benefit of uranium ore in Niger by reinforcing the Franco-African policy in the continent. Critics say it is ‘neo-colonialism’ which aims to subjugate sovereign African states.

Though Niger got its independence in the 1960s, France still plays an influential role in the country — thereby playing a monopoly-game to tap its natural resources. Since the discovery of uranium in Niger, a major chunk of the ore has been exclusively exported to France for over 40 years by Areva, the state-owned nuclear power company of France.

Surprisingly, in return, uranium mining in Niger only contributes around 5 per cent to the national Gross Domestic Product. Over 50 per cent of the uranium ore extracted from Niger is used for fuelling French nuclear power plants — this is where a third of all uranium for France’s reactors comes from.

Three out of four light bulbs in France are illuminated through Nigerien uranium. Many don’t even know that the impoverished mining towns of Niger are keeping the lights on in France. But the situation in Niger is just the reverse, where only 10 to 20 per cent people in the urban areas have access to electricity, while only 2 to 3 per cent do in the rural areas.

Dying livelihood

In the northern part of the country, pastoralist communities like the ethnic Taureg have survived on their livestock for generationsBut the present generation of Taureg are not that fortunate as their forefathers.

“The air, water and land are polluted around the mining towns”, reports a journalist based in the Nigerien capital of Niamey, on the condition of anonymity. And the animals of the pastoralists are constantly falling sick due to their grazing pastures being contaminated with radioactive dust”, he further adds.

“Have you seen the soil of our country?” asks Abu Bakar in a frustrated tone, a mining worker based at Arlit, an industrial town in north-central Niger. “It is dry and lifeless. Just look down and see yourself. There is something evil in the dust”, Bakar complained while pointing his hand towards the sick sheep at his house which he hopes will die soon.

Seven years back, Bakar decided to work at Arlit as a construction worker in the mining company, because he was convinced that his traditional pastoralist way of living is no longer feasible. Today, in a desperate effort to keep his tradition intact, Bakar still rears three sheep at his makeshift house.

Every day, in the morning, his children play with the sheep. “It disturbs me”, says Bakar. Because he knows that his children will never become pastoralists like their grandparents. And the lack of an education system in the region ensures that the future of his children is dark. 

The story of Bakar mirrors tens of thousands of other pastoralists who are now struggling to uphold their traditional livelihood and ending up working in the mining towns. They sternly criticise ‘uranium mining companies’ as responsible for their misery.

Paradoxically, the Nigerien government is serving the French mining companies by offering special concessions and relaxations often secretly — violating international standards.

But these clandestine deals between the Nigerien government and France-based companies are no longer a secret affair. For instance, Reuters has reviewed documents which reveal that Areva’s mines pay no export duties on uranium, no taxes on materials and equipment used in mining operations, and a royalty of just 5.5 per cent on the uranium they produce.

Despite strict restrictions by the Nigerien government and French companies, several international agencies have conducted independent research studies and investigations to assess the damage caused by the mining on the environment. And the findings are disturbing.  

Environmental concerns

In the mining cities of Arlit and Akokan, researchers have found increased amounts of radioactivity and cancer rates as a result of radioactive tailing and dust. It is estimated that nearly 45-million tonnes of radioactive tailings have been accumulated over the years. 

The tailing generated by mining contains harmful particulars and emit radon — enough to pollute the local ecosystem for generations.  To make the situation worse, the tailings dump is located close to farmlands, thereby poisoning the food consumed by local communities.  

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency sets limits on emissions from the dumps and monitors them on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this does not happen in many less-developed countries across Africa. For Areva, polluting Niger is cheaper than polluting France.

But thanks to organisations like GreenpeaceCRIIRAD and ROTAB, ground-breaking research on the quality of the soil, water and air in Arlit and Akokan is now available.

Their studies prove that concentration is almost 500 times higher than normal background levels. Even spending one hour per day over one year at this location can expose a person to 10 times the annual radiation dose, warns a report.  

But for Areva, such warnings are vague. Areva claims no contaminated material gets out of the mines. In contrast, Greenpeace found several pieces of radioactive scrap metal at the local market in Arlit, with radiation dose rates reaching up to 50 times greater than normal levels. 

In four of the five water samples that Greenpeace collected in the Arlit region, the uranium concentration was above the World Health Organization recommended limit. It is estimated that 270 billion litres of water had been used by the mines over 40 years of operations, draining a fossil aquifer more than 150 metres deep, according to Greenpeace. “The true cost of the pollution created by Areva is unclear, and may run into billions of dollars”, say Nick Meynen, an environmental activist.  

Health hazards

“The case of severe diseases among the mining workers has increased”, said Almoustapha Alhacen, founder of a local non-profit known as Aghirin Man. “Most common diseases are disruption of the hormonal system, cancer, infertility, birth malformations, abortion and psychological disorder”, reports Alhacen.

But the doctors hardly acknowledge the fact that many of such diseases are actually related to radioactivity due to occupational work. Local journalists claim that since Areva provides funding support to the hospitals in the mining towns, the hospital administration never reveals the effects of radioactivity, particularly lung cancer.

“It is an open secret here”, informs Mahamadou Djibo Samaila, former Secretary General of the Union of Niamey University Students. “Patients are often duped by the doctors who tell them that they have been affected by HIV/AIDS”, said an irritated Samaila.

“In reality, the majority of such cases are related to radioactivity”, explains Samaila. It should be noted here that Niger has a very low rate of HIV/AIDS. Regardless of such critical findings from various research studies, Areva denies all allegations

Future projections

As the Sahara is blessed with uranium ores, it is quite obvious that more countries will join the competition to tap the source of ‘nuclear power’. Niger will be an ultimate destination for them.

For example, China is already expanding its operations in Niger. Recently, an Indian company has also secured a permit for mining. But the process of extracting uranium is no longer that easy. Mining companies are highly alert about the mounting insecurities and suicide bomb attacks by radical groups. 

The ethnic Taureg community of Niger has a history of exploitations by France since its colonial period and endures bitter relations with Niamey for continuous marginalisation of the northern region. Taureg rebel groups have been demanding for an equal share of profits from mining and using the same for development of local communities.

On the other hand, Al Qaeda is also active in the region; it aims to promote Sharia law and seize the uranium reserves in the country. If Al Qaeda succeeds in seizing the uranium reserve in Niger, it will affect the regional stability, predict geopolitical analysts.    

Considering the presence of radical groups with competing local agendas, the future of Niger seems uncertain. Surrounded by crisis-affected countries, the increasing conflicts for looting natural resources in and around Niger will escalate the crisis.

It should be noted here that crisis in any of these neighbouring countries would have its detrimental effects. Hence, the respective government and the mining companies operating therein should adopt a regional and holistic approach to resolve the crisis.

When uranium was first discovered in Niger, Areva promised to build a ‘Little Paris’, in the country. After 40 years of mining, Arlit, the city created by Areva, is filled with radiation. The death rates are twice as much as in the rest of the country.

In his tiny office with a rustic iron board written as ‘Aghirin Man’, Alhacen preserves all records that deals with the effects of radiation. He firmly believes these tools will help his community to fight against Areva.

“Only time will tell the ultimate price for extracting a disaster”, reminds Alhacen. “We have seen only the tip of the iceberg”. He was referring to uranium. A sudden wind brings a layer of sand dust into his office. Alhacen wipes dust from his face.

“We have a long way to go”, Alhacen closed the window. 

Abhijit Mohanty is an Indian international development professional currently based in Cameroon, Central Africa. He has extensively worked with indigenous communities in India, Nepal and Cameroon, especially on the issues of land, forests, and water. He also writes on how the world’s super-powers are involved in crises in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. 

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