Niger is situated in the sub-Sahara region, at the southern border of the Sahara desert.
Niger used to be a French colony and was given independence in 19 XX.
When France granted independence to Niger – and adjacent West African states – they made contracts with the respective governments of these states granting the exclusive right to mining and exploitation of minerals to France.
Uranium was found in the area of the Air mountains in the North of Niger, approx. 1.200km North of Niamey, capital of Niger, and 250km North of Agadez, one of the main settlements of the Tuaregs, indigenous people of the Sahara desert.
Until then, the Tuareg, had grazed and raised their cattle in the area, planted gardens etc., making a living as agro-pastoralists.
The mines …
Mining of uranium started in Niger in the area of the Air mountains in 1968 (SOMAIR, open-pit mine) and 1974 (COMINAK, underground mine), both companies subsidiaries of COGEMA, the French state-owned uranium mining company, today known as AREVA. Two mines were opened and are operated to this day – one open-pit mine with the town of Arlit close by, and an underground mine, Akouta; Cogema says the underground mine would be the largest mine in the world in regard to kilometers of shafts, galleries and tunnels.
The mining area being far away from any infrastructure, the companies artificially created the towns of Arlit and Akokan. With no electricity provided, the companies built a coal-fired power plant approx 180 km south of the mining areas, near the village of Tchirozerine, exploiting comparatively dirty coal; today, people in the area are complaining about respiratory problems, and grass and trees are suffering form the exhaust from the power plant, making cattle raising difficult.
The mineworkers …
The milling process – which is a complicated, several-step-process chemical extraction of uranium from the ore – uses large amounts of water; in the arid desert region, this water needs to be pumped from underground aquifers, some of which are very old water bodies which will not be replenished through rainfall once they are emptied through the mining activities.
When mining began, miners and workers were not informed about the dangers of uranium, radiation etc.; according to first hand reports, there was no protective clothing, no dust masks, no radiation badges.
The miners ate their lunch sitting on the uranium rocks; they went home with their clothes full of uranium dust, the children played on their lap and the women washed the clothes by hand – thus, the radioactive materials were spread into the homes of the miners and workers.
According to witnesses, it was not until the Chernobyl accident in 1986 that some protective clothing was handed out to the workers, and radiation badges were given – however, not to each worker individually, but to groups.
The company also gave away scrap metal from out-of-use machinery or trucks, covered with uranium dust, to local people – who made pots and pans, dishes etc. from the metal; pipes from the mill – still containing uranium dust – were given away and used by the local people for watering their gardens, plastic materials contaminated with uranium dust are used in building houses, especially in the shanty town which started to arrive around the town of Arlit, thus spreading radioactive contamination all over the place.
The environment …
In the past 40years, approx 100.000 t of uranium have been mined by both mines in Niger, leaving behind several millions of tons of tailings which still contain up to 80% of the original radioactivity of the ore.
None of these tailings are secured, covered or reclaimed; the wind blows the dust from these tailings into the settlements, into the desert, and goats walk on them.
Founding of an NGO “Aghir in Man” – a call for help
In 2001, after a number of miners and workers had passed away prematurely, their colleagues founded an NGO called “Aghir in Man”, a Tamasheq word (the language of the Tuareg people), a call for help.
Aghir in Man started to ask questions to the company in regard to the causes of the premature deaths. According to Aghir in Man’s president, Almoustapha Alhacen, the company responded by threatening to close down the mine in case Aghir in Man would continue asking questions.
Many of the members of Aghir in Man stepped back, afraid of loosing their jobs.
However, later on, women of miners and other civil society organisations joined in and supported Aghir in Man’s activities’.
In addition, both hospitals in the two towns of Arlit and Akokan are owned by Cogema – AREVA, there are no public / independent hospitals.
According to reports from first-hand witnesses, the cause of death of workers who passed away in the hospitals were given to the relatives as AIDS or other diseases.
Although, within the 30+ years of operation of the mines, no case death through occupational diseases has occurred according to the hospitals.
Research by French NGOs CRIIRad and SHERPA
In 2002, Aghir in Man invited the French NGO CRIIRad Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité (Independent Committee for Reserach and Information on Radioactivity), which had already done major research on Cogema’s mining activities in France, to Arlit / Niger.
Upon arrival in Niamey, the capital of Niger, the radiation measing equipment of CRIIRad was confiscated by Niger customs; obviously, Government was not interested in independent radiological reserach in the vicinity of the mines.
It has to be added on that approx. 30% of the state budget of Niger is coming from the uranium mines; however, only a very small percentage – if any at all – goes to the development of the North where the mines are located, most of the money is spent in the South, thus also giving rise to an imbalance between Tuareg and other nomads inhabiting the North and black Africans inhabiting the South of Niger.
Also, the NGO SHERPA, Paris / France, carried out a study of the workers’ situation at the mines (see also website of CRIIRad: www.criirad.org).
CRIIRad was able to conduct some research with other equipment, and found out / confirmed the following facts:
- In certain wells – which provide drinking water for the people – the concentration of uranium in the water is 10 to a 110 times higher than allowed by the World Health organisation (WHO) dose limits. In other words, the water is not apt for human use.
- The sracp metal given away to people is radioactively contaminated.
- CRIIRad also stated that there are problems regarding the wind blowing radioactive dust from the tailings into the settlements; especially in the mornings and evenings when miners are taken to work or return from work by bus, there are high amounts of dust containing radioactive elements in the air.
- The tailings, millions of tons, are not secured.
The high water consumption of the mines / mills is another serious problem.
The water is used in the so-called milling process where uranium is extracted by sulphur acid from the crushed and grinded ore; the – polluted – water which cannot be used any further, is then pumped to tailings ponds and left to evaporation.
The Tuareg have a proverb “Amam Imam” – Water is Life.
It can only be estimated who bad people must feel when their main means of existence in the desert region – water – is (ab)used for chemical processes and then left to evaporation while people nearby do not get enough or clean drinking water
In 2004, and again in 2008, water supply for the people living in Arlit became scarce since the mine was using the water preferably for the milling of uranium.
Aghir in Man organized two protest marches to achieve better / adequate water supply for the people.
(1) A poor country stays poor – in spite its wealth in mineral resources
Niger has been one the poorest countries in the world 30 years ago.
For more than 30 years, uranium has been mined on a large scale (100.000 t) for use mostly in the French nuclear fuel chain.
Presently, Niger is still one of the five poorest countries in the world.
(2) “Pollution durable” instead of “sustainable development”
As Almoustapha Alhacen pointed out, the North of Niger does not have a sustainable development, instead it received a “pollution durable” – a long lasting pollution and contamination:
- Radioactive contamination of the land, making a return to the traditional way of life very difficult if not impossible
- Radioactive contamination of water resources, result see above
- Depletion of water aquifers – which will be irreversible in regard to some aquifers, thus making the traditional way of life of the Tuareg people impossible
- Miners and workers dying prematurely of undeclared diseases.
- According ton first-hand witnesses, “unexplicable diseases” are on the rise in the vicinity of the mines.
- The contamination of land, air and water, and the depletion of groundwater resources is not only a direct threat to public health, it also endangers seriously the way of life as agro-pastoralists adapted to an arid environment, and thus the culture of the Tuareg people.
In spring 2007, a rebellion of Tuaregs and other groups in the North of Niger started, partially due to the unfulfilled promises of the 1995 Peace Accord, partially probably fuelled by the fact that the Tuaregs and other nomads found themselves confronted with a major influx of mining / exploration companies into their area, prospecting for uranium and other minerals.
The rebel group is MNJ Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (Movement of Niger people for Justice).
The government in Niamey has given away more than 120 exploration licenses to uranium mining and exploration companies from all over the world, with no consultation of the local people, and – to our knowledge – with no environmental impact statements or any kind of environmental regulations.
The Tuaregs obviously saw themselves again pushed into a situation where outside powers would exploit the mineral wealth of their region with no / next to no positive developments for their area, however leaving behind “pollution durable”, long-lasting contamination, in their traditional areas.
The Impact of Uranium Exploitation by the Nigerien Subsidiaries of COGEMA -AREVA
Review of the analyses carried out by CRIIRAD laboratories in 2004 and the beginning of 2005
Reference: CRIIRAD 0517 / 20th April 2005 / V2 (photos joint)
This document is to complete the Mission Report CRIIRAD 03-40, dated December 19, 2003.
The study was realized by the CRIIRAD laboratories in collaboration with the NGOs
AGHIR’IN MAN and SHERPA
French original version: www.criirad.org
English translation: Contact the author of this article GunterWippel@aol.com
Personal communication with Mr. Almoustapha Alhacen, Aghir in Man, Arlit / Niger
Film: “Arlit – deuxieme Paris”, published by EZEF, Germany
Blog of MNJ – Mouvement des Nigeriens pour la Justice (m-n-j.over-blogspot.com)