Rivers near Congo copper and cobalt mines are toxic – report

Residents reported a scarcity of clean water for drinking and personal hygiene. (Image: RAID)

The river waters near some of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s largest copper and cobalt mines are toxic, according to a recent report by RAID and DRC-based African Resources Watch.

The UK corporate watchdog found that residents in the visited communities expressed concerns about the harmful effects of toxic contamination on their health and the destructive consequences on local ecosystems and agriculture.

Residents reported a scarcity of clean water for drinking and personal hygiene, forcing them to use contaminated water for their daily needs. Of those interviewed, 56% stated that the pollution was impacting the gynecological and reproductive health of women and girls, leading to issues such as irregular menstruation, urogenital infections, more frequent miscarriages, and, in some cases, birth defects.

Locals reported frequent skin diseases and expressed particular concern for the health of their children.

Nearly all respondents (99%) reported significant reductions in crop and field yields due to water contamination, resulting in substantial economic hardships. Additionally, 59% indicated reducing their food intake to one meal a day, 59% had to withdraw their children from school due to financial constraints, and 75% stated they could no longer afford healthcare or medicine.

Source: RAID

“The world needs Congo’s cobalt to hit net zero targets, but the energy transition is not benefitting hundreds of thousands of Congolese people living in the shadow of the big industrial cobalt mines,” Emmanuel Umpula, executive director at African Resources Watch, said in a statement.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of RAID, emphasized the importance of ensuring clean cobalt sourcing and holding mining companies accountable for environmental damages. She urged electric vehicle companies to demand responsible practices from their cobalt suppliers.

Congo’s miners use vast amounts of acid to process ore into copper and cobalt. Under the country’s mining law, companies are supposed to prevent toxic wastewater from contaminating groundwater or local waterways.

The country overtook Peru to become the second-largest copper producer in 2023 and provides about 70% of the world’s cobalt.

Mining companies such as Glencore Plc, Eurasian Resources Group (ERG), Zijin Mining Group and CMOC Group acknowledged the historic pollution from older mines and other activities contributing to the water contamination. They highlighted measures taken to mitigate pollution risks, including monitoring water quality and implementing preventive measures.

Glencore wrote that it monitors water quality at its operations in line with both Congolese regulations and international best practices.

CMOC said it’s committed to complying with environmental laws, and that the company regularly monitors surface water, groundwater and drinking water.

ERG said its operation doesn’t discharge into rivers, while its monitoring shows no pollution. Zijin, in its response to questions from researchers, said it regularly tests water quality and has implemented measures to prevent seepage of acid and alkali wastewater from its operations.