04.03.2014 - Natural Sciences Sector

Critical Thinking about Critical Resources

© Lubala 2013. Women, youth, and children reworking old tailings of Cu-Co deposits, Kolwezi, DRC.

Critical resources are those essential to the technological advancement and development for modern society. As we move into an increasingly technological age, the global demand on rare Earth elements and other nonrenewable resources intensifies. A mobile phone alone contains 40 different nonrenewable elements, including cobalt, gallium, platinum and rare Earth elements. Governments and international agencies have identified a crisis in critical resource supplies to the 21st century economies; continuing with our current trends in resource extraction is not possible.

Critical resources, and the issues surrounding them, are themes woven through many of the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) 2014 projects - highlighting its importance to the world’s economy and development. It is crucial to understand the geological occurrence, formation and mineral residence of critical elements, determine future resources, and quantify their global availability.  A project funded through the IGCP aims to increase the knowledge on natural resources: IGCP 600: “Metallogeny of collision orogens”.  This project brings together researchers from various scientific backgrounds, from different countries, at different stages of their career and promotes cooperation, knowledge exchange, and collaboration on researching Earth’s systems.

Although nonrenewable resources underpin our economy and have greatly improved our quality of life, there are controversies surrounding extraction techniques and environmental damage, especially in Africa.  This is the result of economic pressures and a slower evolution of environmental awareness.  African communities have experienced the damaging effects of mining activities and the impacts on the ecosystems and public health.  IGCP supports projects that attend to these issues: IGCP 606: “Addressing Environmental and health impact of major and abandoned mines in Sub-Saharan Africa” and IGCP: 594 “Impact of Mining on Environment in Africa.”  These projects provide science-based knowledge and advice for governments and local authorities on contamination monitoring, land-use planning and on remediation technologies to mitigate environmental damage in contaminated regions.  

Mining is one of the principal drivers of the Sub-Saharan economy – contributing more than 20%.  Agriculture also makes up a vital arm of the regional economy, but has felt the impacts from the development of mining.  Decades of metal mining have introduced various toxic metal species into surface and groundwater resources, soil and food crops, with potential consequences farther up the food chain for animal and human populations.  Some Sub-Saharan African countries lack an inventory of abandoned mines, giving rise to the critical need to systematically survey and assess impacts on the region.  Some countries also lack basic information required to distinguish between anthropogenic and natural sources of metals in waters, soils, and vegetation.  Environmental baselines are therefore being established to assess the degree of contamination in soils and crops.  UNESCO, in collaboration with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), has supported research to determine the extent of damage caused by metal pollutants, their impact on human and animal health, and the effect on the environment and ecosystems.  

In 2013, analysis was conducted on 10 sites in 9 countries.  This included studies on lead-cupper-silver-arsenic contamination in a Namibian mine, lead-zinc contamination in Vitengeni, Kenya and iron various harmful metals from tailings in Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. In total 800 samples from various sites were collected and analyses in an internationally accredited laboratory with preliminary results to be published in May 2014.  The outcomes serve as scientific data for policy briefs and decision makers.  

One success story arises from the lead, vanadium, and zinc Berg Aukas abandoned mine in Namibia.  The abandoned buildings on the mining site were being used as a youth agricultural school and the surrounding area for growing crops.  After soil analysis determined that the soil was unsafe, the school was moved to uncontaminated grounds.  Another project located in the Kedougou region in eastern Senegal studies the degree of mercury pollution resulting from artisanal small-scale gold mining.  The surrounding sediment, water, and fauna were found to be contaminated and mercury bioaccumulates found in fish were above the World Health Organisation thresholds.  Even more, mercury concentrations were analysed from human hair – confirming human contamination and an urgent need to educate local communities about the long-term impacts of mercury use in mining.  

UNESCO’s projects improve capacity building in environmental monitoring and Earth sciences in general, strengthen the capacity for African institutions in geoscience research, raise public awareness regarding the impacts of mining on environmental and human health, and facilitate cooperation between geoscientists, environmental scientists and medical scientists.  Results are being used for land-use planning, remediation strategies, and mitigation of environmental dangers in contaminated regions.  Mining and quarrying for natural resources is inevitable, considering the integral part they play in scientific and technological development.  However, extraction of these resources needs to be conducted sustainably; rehabilitation technologies and remedial actions for contaminated mining sites must be co-developed alongside further mining developments.   

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