Environmental Context for the Extractive Industries in Niger
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Niger frequently faces environmental problems due to a lack of rain and encroaching desertification, often this severely reduced food availability in Niger. The nation's environmental crises are played out in an economic context of a fast growing oil and gas industry and mining industry, and in a social context of under-development and rapid population growth.
Desertification and Drought
Three quarters of Niger is covered by desert, which - according to the Ministry of the Environment - is advancing by six kilometres every year into the south of the country. In January 2012 the Guardian reported that for the third time since 2005, the Sahel region of west Africa was facing a combination of drought, poor harvests and soaring food prices. This has resulted in serious food insecurity in Niger with 6 million people, almost 40 percent of the population, at risk of famine.
An NGO called "AREVA ne fera pas la loi au Niger" (AREVA will not rule in Niger) argues that uranium mining is playing a role in the water shortages in Niger by exhausting two large underground fossil water reserves in the region of Agades. In March 2012, South World reported that Chinese firm China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (CNIUC, also referred to as SinoU) pumps around 4,000 cubic metres of water per day at their Azelik mine, accelerating the exhaustion of fossil water reserves. They expected the situation to further deteriorate when Imouraren came on stream in 2014 since the daily water consumption will be an estimated 20,000 cubic metres.
AREVA, a French company who run some of the largest mining operations in Niger, says it has a policy of reducing it's water consumption at Niger's mining sites. AREVA’s annual consumption of water in Niger had been reduced by about 35 percent in the past 15 years, and in 2010 it fell to around eight million cubic metres. The company say that 65 percent of water consumption is used to supply the everyday needs of the urban communities of Arlit and Akokan. 99 percent of AREVA's 2,500 employees in Niger are Nigerien, so this consumption of water goes beyond their mining usage and is distributed to local communities.
Much debate has surrounded the extent to which uranium mining is resulting in unsafe levels of radiation. In May 2010 Greenpeace published an investigation - in collaboration with the French independent laboratory CRIIRAD (Commission de Recherche et d'Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité) and the Nigerien NGO network ROTAB (Réseau des Organisations pour la Transparence et l’Analyse Budgetaire) - that took radiation measurements in three categories: the presence of radioactive material in the environment, air contamination by radioactive gas (radon 222), and contamination of groundwater which supplies the local population.
The study demonstrated that in the course of their activities, mining companies leave behind solid radioactive matter (such as mud and earth) that exposes the population to radiation. Soil samples also revealed a concentration of uranium and other radioactive materials - one soil sample collected near to an AREVA uranium mine was found to be about 100 times higher than natural levels in the region, and higher than the international exemption limits. The study highlighted that death rates from acute respiratory infections were 16.19 percent at Arlit - almost twice the national average of 8.54 percent. The report stated that while it is often the case that respiratory problems are more common in desert regions, these death rates could indicate a pattern exacerbated by another cause. In four of the five water samples taken from the Arlit region, the study showed uranium concentration was above the World Health Organization recommended limit for drinking water. Some of the water samples contained dissolved radioactive gas. Historical data indicated a gradual increase in uranium concentration during the 1990s and 2000s. According to Greenpeace this suggests that the mining operation is causing such contamination.
AREVA responsed to Greenpeace's allegations saying that all their mining activities in Niger are carried out in strict compliance with international health, safety and environmental standards. The argued that this compliance has already been confirmed by numerous independent studies.
- "Food Distribution Begins in Drought-Inflicted Niger" The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "Niger: 2011 Article IV Consultation" International Monetary Fund, retrieved 18 April 2012.
- "Communities contending with crisis in Niger" The Guardian, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "Projects Aplenty to Halt the Desert" IPS News, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "Famine isn't an extreme event, it's the predictable result of a broken system" The Guardian, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "Une région pillée, un peuple sacrifié!" AREVA ne fera pas la loi au Niger, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "Niger - The curse of uranium" South World, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "AREVA and the Global Compact" AREVA, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "PRIORITY TO LOCAL EMPLOYMENT AND THE TRANSFER OF SKILLS" AREVA, retrieved 2 May 2012.
- "Commitment to Responsible Development" AREVA, retrieved 2 May 2012.
- "Left in the Dust" Greenpeace, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "AREVA and Niger: a Sustainable Partnership" AREVA, retrieved 24 April 2012.
- "AREVA Deplores Lack of Transparency on Part of Greenpeace" AREVA, retrieved 24 April 2012.