When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

I met “David” and his brothers in the dusty township of Chowa in Kabwe. David, eight years old, is thin and small for his age. Sitting in their yard, his grandfather described his worries about David.

He has problems in school, finding it hard to retain information. He also has stomach aches and can’t see very well, possible lead poisoning symptoms.

A few years ago, David was found to have extremely high amounts of lead in his blood – high enough to warrant immediate treatment. But he never received any medical care.

Kabwe’s mine dates to the colonial period: a British company opened the lead mine in 1904. The South African company Anglo American took over in 1925 and remained in charge for nearly half a century.

Early on, doctors’ certificates revealed that lead smelter workers suffered health effects, but the company continued to mine, smelt, and poison the environment.

Zambia later nationalised the mine, then closed it in 1994. But there was no comprehensive clean-up.

And so, 25 years later, homes, schools, and play areas are contaminated with lead dust. Medical studies confirm that children living nearby have extremely high lead levels in their blood. Five micrograms of lead per decilitre (µg/dL) are considered elevated, and treatment is advised for severe lead poisoning cases of 45 µg/dL.

In Kabwe’s affected areas, about half the children have 45 µg/dL or more and need medical treatment. Lead can cause stunted growth, anaemia, learning difficulties, organ damage, coma, convulsions, and even death. Children are particularly vulnerable.

When Human Rights Watch visited Kabwe in 2018, public health facilities had no lead testing kits or medicine. Many residents said they felt fearful and helpless.

The Zambian government has recently begun the initial steps of a World Bank-funded programme to clean up neighbourhoods and provide health care for lead exposure in Kabwe. But the clean-up is so limited in scope that it risks being a failure. 
The government has trained a group of health workers, and procured medicine.  It says that 10, 000 children and pregnant women will soon be tested and treated, and that homes and 10 schools in areas near the mine will be cleaned up. These measures could bring some relief to David’s family.

But the road ahead is long. The programme to tackle lead pollution in Kabwe officially started in December 2016, nearly three years ago. It got off to a very slow start.

Many local residents and community leaders feel left in the dark and are sceptical that the situation will improve. The Zambian government is also haunted by the failures of a previous programme a decade ago. In the coming months, it will need to deliver.

The government also needs to do a better job of informing the local population. When I spoke to residents and community leaders in Kabwe’s lead-polluted areas in November 2018, they said they had no information about the World Bank-funded effort. It is encouraging that in recent weeks, the government has finally started to provide some.

The biggest problem may be that the government will not pave the dirt roads that spread the dust in affected areas, nor  clean up the source of the contamination, the former mine itself.

More than six million tons of mining waste are out in the open, and dust blows over nearby residential areas. The most visible is known as the “Black Mountain” – schoolboys go there to slide down the hill for fun, unaware of the risks.

The Ministry of Mines has issued mining licences for the former mine area, rather than conducting a proper land restoration effort. Ongoing small-scale mining poses serious health risks for workers and the community.

In addition, the South African company Jubilee Metals is planning to reprocess the waste to recover more minerals, such as lead, zinc, and vanadium.

Their plans need to undergo stringent government oversight to avoid further harm to people and the environment, including a requirement for a sound environmental and social impact assessment before starting operations.

Indeed, such a process will be a litmus test for the government’s self-declared goal of enhancing environmental governance and compliance.

For children like David and thousands of others, the neighbourhood clean-up needs to be lasting and comprehensive – which means that it needs to include the roads and the former mine.

To save children in Kabwe from further lead poisoning, the government needs to ramp up its efforts – and donors should provide additional support.

International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which starts on October 20, is an excellent moment to come together around this goal.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Golfrid Siregar, an environmental lawyer, died on October 6, 2019, three days after his unconscious body was found in Medan, North Sumatra.  


© Roy Lumbangaol/Walhi
(Jakarta) – Indonesian authorities should immediately and impartially investigate the death of an environmental lawyer, Golfrid Siregar, in Medan, North Sumatra, Human Rights Watch said today.

After midnight on October 3, 2019, a pedicab driver found Siregar unconscious and seriously injured on a street in Medan, the provincial capital, and took him to a local hospital. He never regained consciousness and died on October 6. He had suffered multiple injuries and his wallet and other personal effects were missing.

“Golfrid Siregar was an environmental lawyer and grassroots activist who had dedicated his life to protecting Sumatra’s rainforests and helping villagers protect their land,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher. “His death under suspicious circumstances demands a prompt, thorough investigation of all those implicated.”

Siregar, 34, represented the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, or Walhi), Indonesia’s largest environmental group, in a lawsuit against North Sumatra’s governor over his 2017 approval for the construction of the US$1.5 billion Batang Toru hydroelectric dam. Walhi had argued that the permit issuance process was problematic and was appealing two earlier court verdicts they had lost. He had also sought legal action against the police in a related matter for their alleged failure to adequately respond to a complaint.

On the evening of October 2, Siregar had visited his uncle’s house in Medan, playing board games and having tea, his relatives said. He left by motorcycle at about 11 p.m. to return home. The hospital CCTV shows the pedicab driver who brought Siregar’s unconscious body into the hospital at 1:12 a.m. on October 3. The driver and two people who accompanied him left two minutes later, the police said.

The police later reported that Siregar’s laptop, wallet, ID card, cell phone, and wedding ring were missing, making it more difficult to locate his family. Walhi’s North Sumatra director told the media that Siregar had serious head injuries, swelling in the right eye, and a blue mark, probably internal bruising, on his left hand.

At 11 a.m. on October 3, after locating his motorcycle, the hospital, with police assistance, called Siregar’s family. Surgeons operated later that day and removed a portion of his skull to relieve pressure on the brain.

He died on October 6, leaving his wife, Resmi Barimbing, and their baby daughter, Velycia.

The local police precinct initially claimed that Siregar was injured in a traffic accident. But his family and Walhi have raised concerns that  Siregar was murdered: his motorcycle was not damaged and did not have any asphalt marks. His legs and hands did not have any cuts or wounds typical in traffic accidents. His uncle said Siregar only drank “bottled tea” that evening.

North Sumatra police told journalists they are now conducting an autopsy. On October 10, the police arrested the pedicab driver and the other two men for robbery, for allegedly taking Siregar’s possessions after the traffic accident.

Walhi colleagues said that Siregar had received several threats since they had filed the lawsuit against the Batang Toru dam construction in August 2018 although the threats had probably stopped over the last four to six weeks. Siregar was also taking part in a legal case concerning an alleged forged signature in the Batang Toru dam’s environmental assessment report. He was also involved in other controversial North Sumatra litigation, defending villagers against a concrete company in Siantar, helping villagers in Karo regency over illegal logging, and assisting fishermen in Pantau Labu contesting a sand company.

“The nature of Siregar’s death and the threats he received raise numerous alarm bells,” Harsono said. “All those concerned about Indonesia’s environment will be watching the authorities to ensure that a credible investigation occurs and that any crime associated with his death is appropriately prosecuted.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to provide a submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on children’s right to a healthy environment, in advance of its 2020 annual full-day meeting on the same topic.

The impact of environmental degradation and pollution on children’s rights (question 1)

For over a decade, Human Rights Watch has documented how governments have failed to protect children from environmental harm.

Exposure to toxic substances

Human Rights Watch has documented children’s exposure to hazardous substances in many contexts. Around the world, children are exposed to hazardous substances while playing, bathing, going to school, eating, drinking, or working. Many hazardous substances have particularly harmful consequences for children, whose developing bodies absorb them more readily than those of adults and are especially vulnerable to certain toxins, leading in some cases to irreversible long-term damage, disability, or even death.

Children’s exposure as result of business activity

Business activity has been the source of significant environmental damage that harms children through pollution of air, soil or water, and other pathways of exposure. Governments often fail to regulate companies sufficiently. For example, children living near or working in leather tanneries in Bangladesh have been exposed to chemicals that flowed off tannery floors into open gutters of nearby streets, and had severe health problems as a result. Smelters or battery factories have caused lead poisoning in children in China and Kenya; yet, protests by parents have sometimes been met with government repression. In agriculture, children have been exposed to harmful fertilizers and pesticides in Brazil, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, the United States, and Israel/Palestine.

Children’s health has also been severely affected by exposure to chemicals from large-scale and small-scale mining operations. In Zambia and Kosovo, children living near former industrial lead mines have suffered from lead poisoning as a result, and in some cases died. In small-scale gold mining regions in Mali, Ghana, Tanzania, the Philippines, and elsewhere, children have been exposed to toxic mercury used to process gold, and in some cases developed symptoms that are consistent with mercury poisoning. And in one of the worst environmental health disasters in recent years, over 400 children died in Nigeria in 2010 from exposure to lead-contaminated dust produced inadvertently during artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

Hazardous substances in water supply systems

In several countries that Human Rights Watch investigated, governments have failed to protect children from hazardous chemicals in the soil, groundwater, or water supply system. In Bangladesh, millions of children have been exposed to harmful arsenic via well water. In Canada, Indigenous communities have been exposed to water containing naturally occurring uranium, E.coli, or coliform, as a result of systemic water and wastewater challenges facing First Nations, including lack of regulations to protect drinking water on reserves. In Harare, Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch found that children were at risk of contracting dangerous waterborne diarrheal diseases as they were drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated with sewage. In Basra, Iraq, government failure to ensure sufficient safe drinking water has resulted in an acute water crisis that sent at least 118,000 people to the hospital in 2018, and that has not been solved. 

Climate change

Human Rights Watch has documented government failures to address climate change, its impact on the realization of children’s rights, as well as human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation—two drivers of climate change.

Child rights impacts of climate change

Government inaction on climate change impacts children’s rights to life, water, food, and health. Children from Indigenous communities are often particularly vulnerable to climatic changes because their culture and livelihood is tied to their land, and such marginalized groups typically lack the resources and government support to adapt to climate change impacts.

In Kenya, Human Rights Watch found that climate change has limited local Indigenous communities’ access to food and clean water and contributed to children’s ill-health. Girls often have to walk long distances to find water, exposing them to dangers along the route and leaving them with less time to attend school or rest. In Bangladesh, families have arranged child marriages for their daughters under 18 in part because of extreme poverty, compounded by natural disasters that are linked to climate change. In Brazil, where climate change is likely to increase the spread of mosquitos carrying vector-borne diseases, the government has responded inadequately to the outbreak of the Zika virus. 

Coal mining and deforestation

Children have suffered serious human rights violations in the context of coal mining and deforestation. In the United States, the government has failed to mitigate health risks associated with mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining, by protecting streams from mining pollution. In South Africa, coal mines and coal-fired power plants have contributed to air pollution that threatens the health of local communities, particularly children. In Malawi, residents living near coal mines have faced forced resettlement and harmful impacts on their livelihood; health information about coal mines has been kept secret. In Brazil, the government has largely failed to act against criminal networks responsible for deforestation, including forest fires. Deforestation robs Indigenous peoples and local communities of their livelihood and the forest fires can cause serious health issues among children. In Indonesia, Indigenous peoples have lost ancestral forests to oil palm plantations, resulting in violations of their rights to livelihood, food, water, and culture.

Inadequate regulation of the coal industry and the failure to prevent deforestation risk undermining government commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby further threatening the realization of children’s rights.

Examples of good practice towards ensuring children’s rights to a healthy environment, including child participation (questions 2 and 5)

Human Rights Watch has come across initiatives that appear promising. Here are some examples:

  • The recent youth movement for climate activism has managed to shift the debate over climate change in many countries. For example, in Germany, it helped push the government to decide upon a series of mitigation measures.
  • In the Philippines, the government launched an initiative to withdraw child laborers between the ages of 15 and 17 from small-scale gold mining and offered them vocational training in the tourism sector. The government, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) partner also set up a mercury-free and child labor-free gold mining operation called “Compassionate Gold.”  
  • In Zambia, a local NGO supported the creation of youth groups and school youth clubs that inform residents about environmental risks and have participated in a home remediation program that served as pilot for a larger World Bank program. The youth group is also regularly on the radio and has engaged with local officials over pollution concerns.

Laws and other measures to ensure companies do not harm the environment or contribute to child rights abuse—as well as challenges in this regard (questions 3 and 4)


  • Due diligence laws: France has adopted a law requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence in their global supply chains, including children’s environmental health rights. The Netherlands in 2019 passed a law for child labor due diligence, which has the potential to protect children from child labor-related toxic exposures.
  • Challenge: Most countries do not have mandatory human rights due diligence laws
  • Access to information laws: In 2017, Malawi adopted a law that enables people to request and obtain vital information such as water-quality testing results. In the Philippines, a newspaper has used a freedom of information law to obtain publication of a government report on mercury poisoning of local communities at a former mercury mine site.
  • Challenge: Some countries lack functioning freedom of information laws; some do not have any such laws altogether.
  • Court action: In a Chile court case over air pollution, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration had neglected the health and well-being of the region’s residents for years, resulting in violations of people’s rights to life, health, and a pollution-free environment. A court in Thailand has ruled that the company responsible for lead pollution in Klity Creek has to pay for its cleanup. The country’s Supreme Administrative Court has also ordered the government’s Pollution Control Department to pay approximately US$125,000 in compensation to plaintiffs affected by the toxic legacy.
  • Challenge: Some court rulings remain unenforced.
  • Government regulation of businesses: Laws in the United States require high-risk industries to provide financial assurances to ensure they have the resources to clean up potential pollution. Brazil has prohibited all work by children in tobacco, largely because of the risk of exposure to hazardous substances, and established penalties for farmers and companies purchasing the tobacco, creating an incentive for the tobacco industry to ensure that children are not working on farms in their supply chains.
  • Challenge: Government regulation is very lax in many countries and sectors. One example is that the US default body weight for regulating drinking water contaminant levels is 80 kilograms, the mean adult weight. Regulations should be set to ensure drinking water is safe for babies.
  • Close coordination of institutions dealing with child rights, labor rights, environment, health, and business when formulating policies: A recent ILO project on child labor in small-scale gold mining brought actors from these different spheres together and facilitated coordination this way.
  • Challenge: There is frequently a lack of coordination among UN agencies dealing with environment or child rights, as well as among agencies and ministries on the national level. As a result, laws and policies on the environment do not always consider child rights, and vice versa.

Monitoring of environmental risks to children (question 6)

In the countries where Human Rights Watch has done research, we found that environmental risks to children are being poorly monitored at the national level. This is particularly concerning because health effects may not be manifest for years after exposure, or exposure to carcinogens or climate change occurs slowly. Accountability can also be hampered by the lack of solid data.

Recommendations to States:

  • States should review their environmental laws, standards, policies and programs to determine if they reflect their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and take into account the ways in which children are more susceptible to environmental harm, and amend (if necessary), implement and enforce them.
  • States should strengthen childhood exposure-monitoring efforts, particularly for those living in extreme poverty or in low-income, minority, indigenous, stateless, migrant, or refugee communities. States should also establish population-based surveillance systems for adverse health impacts linked to the environment and strengthen regulatory agencies and ministries responsible for the oversight of standards relevant to children’s rights, such as health, consumer protection, education, environment, food, and labor. (See similar recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.)
  • States should publish and disseminate disaggregated information on the result of monitoring and surveillance, and develop tailored environmental education and information programs.
  • States should ensure that businesses respect the rights of the child in the environmental context and comply with the General Comment 16 by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

States should make the necessary arrangements to facilitate public participation in decision-making on the environment, with a particular emphasis on ensuring meaningful participation of children.            

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes to the Coal Combustion Residual Rule.

My name is Sarah Saadoun and I’m a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a non-profit independent organization that investigates and reports on human rights abuses in 90 countries around the world, including the United States.

I plan to submit a more detailed written submission, so I’d like to use this time to highlight a few points.

Every person has the right to safe water and an environment that does not harm their health. Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect these rights, including by regulating business activity to prevent pollution that poses an unacceptable level of public health risk. Moreover, a necessary component of any policy framework that aims to adequately protect the right to water is that existing protections should not be removed or weakened without careful consideration and a showing that full use is being made of all available resources.

We strongly oppose the EPA’s proposed changes to the coal ash rule as a step backward that threatens the water, air, and health of people living near coal ash piles.

In fact, according to the EPA, it is proposing change to the rule regarding coal ash piles “in response to the May 2017 petitions from AES Puerto Rico LP and Utilities Solid Waste Activities Group,” an industry trade group. AES is a Virginia-based company operating a coal plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, that is the site of a nearly half-million-ton coal ash pile. AES testing found that the coal ash is leaching arsenic, molybdenum, selenium, and lithium into the groundwater—all but arsenic at levels above what the EPA considers to be safe. Test results from the following year showed that levels of all but lithium had increased. The groundwater forms a part of an aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for thousands of residents.

Moreover, residential areas near the plant are exposed to fugitive dust from the coal ash pile. Studies have shown air pollution from coal ash to be a significant health concern. For example, a study by two University of Louisville scientists found that children living near a coal ash landfill—which presumably has less impact than an uncontained coal ash pile—in Louisville, KY were significantly more likely to have health and behavioral problems than those in a comparison group, even after controlling for age, gender, and second-hand smoke exposure. An ongoing study of the same Louisville community found coal ash containing toxic metals in two-thirds of the 162 homes tested, all of which had children living there.

Studies conducted by public health scientists from University of Puerto Rico have documented a worrisome trend of increased incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases in Guayama in recent years.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 were a blunt reminder that the more frequent and heavier storms due to climate change exacerbate the threat piles of toxic waste pose to public health.

In light of all this, the EPA should be redoubling its efforts to ensure AES meticulously complies with its obligation to remediate, monitor, and prevent pollution. Instead, it appears to be weakening these rules at AES’ behest.

The EPA is proposing to subject coal ash piles located on a utility site to the same rules as coal ash already delivered for beneficial reuse. But to do so would effectively mean that a half-million-ton coal ash pile, which has already been shown to be dangerously contaminating groundwater, would be subject to the same minimal environmental requirements as a small, temporary pile of coal ash awaiting reuse.

The EPA’s original justification for distinguishing between “on-site” and “off-site” coal ash piles was to address precisely situations like this one: coal ash is typically stored in greater quantities at a utility site and its presence is permanent, even if there is a constant cycle of removing and adding coal ash to the pile. Not only does the proposed change fail to address this problem, it specifically opts not to place limits on what qualifies as “temporary” coal ash storage, rather than permanent disposal. Even as AES’ efforts to sell its coal ash have faltered, and the vast majority will almost certainly remain in place, the efforts themselves may be sufficient for the utility to claim that its pile should be regulated as storage.

In other words, the proposal seems to be tailor-made to allow AES to avoid properly managing the environmental impacts of its coal ash. To allow it to do so not only endangers the health of Guayamans, but of all people living near coal ash sites. What’s to stop other utilities from taking advantage of the loophole EPA is proposing to create?

We urge the EPA to protect and maintain a strong coal ash rule that protects people’s rights to clean air, water, and health.



Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Roxanne Moonias, mother to an infant with a chronic illness, demonstrates one of the steps she takes to ensure her baby is not exposed to contaminants in the water. Roxanne lives in Neskantaga First Nation and says that it takes her an hour each time to properly wash and rinse his bottles. 

© 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch
(Toronto) – The next Canadian government needs to compensate Neskantaga First Nation for the costs associated with evacuating the community after a water infrastructure failure, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also have a mechanism to deal with major infrastructure failures in remote First Nations communities.

On September 12, 2019, the water pump at the community’s water treatment facility failed, leaving some homes completely without running water and others with water that was not safe to use except to flush toilets. The remote community – only accessible by plane or winter roads – declared a state of emergency on September 14 and began evacuation by air of the majority of community members to Thunder Bay, including chronically ill adults and infants. Indigenous Services Canada refused to provide evacuation assistance at the time.

“Facing a potential human rights and health crisis after a water pump failure, the Chief and Council were left to act alone to protect the health and safety of their community,” said Amanda Klasing, water expert at Human Rights Watch. “The government failed to help the people of Neskantaga, and they should not be on the hook for the cost of dealing with this crisis.”

Indigenous Services Canada denied the community evacuation assistance when the pump failed, claiming that it would be a quick repair and there was no immediate health or safety risk. Chief Chris Moonias disputed that finding, saying that providing bottled water in the interim was insufficient to address the community’s health and safety needs.

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said that Indigenous Services Canada officials told Neskantaga that no precedent or policy existed to provide evacuation or other forms of assistance to remote communities affected by a major infrastructure failure. The cost to the community of dealing with the evacuation alone puts it at risk of losing control of its finances.

A pump was flown in from southern Ontario, and water tests conducted on September 18 and 19 were sufficient to lift the do-not-consume warning. Members began returning on September 23.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the impact of serious and prolonged drinking water and sanitation problems for thousands of First Nations people – indigenous peoples in Canada – living on reserves. The findings detailed problems with safe water and sanitation on reserves, including a lack of binding water quality regulations, insufficient funding, faulty or substandard infrastructure, and degraded source waters. The federal government’s own audits over two decades show a pattern of overpromising and underperforming on water and sanitation on reserves.

Human Rights Watch research focused on the unique human rights challenges faced by Neskantaga First Nation, which has operated under a boil-water advisory for nearly 25 years. Situated on the banks of Attawapiskat Lake in Northern Ontario, Neskantaga First Nation is a remote Oji-Cree community of approximately 300 registered members. Its main settlement, previously known as Lansdowne House, was relocated beginning in the 1980s, with the promise of better services, including housing, water, and sanitation.

The community’s water system, funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, an agency that has since been divided and renamed, was built in 1991. The system that was designed never met the needs of the community in practice. A “boil water” advisory put in place in 1995 has remained in effect ever since. The community requested a new plant, but it was only years later, in 2017, that the federal government finally secured funding. The intended completion date was 2018, but construction has been beset by delays and, in early 2019, the community fired the contractors. With a new contractor, Neskantaga’s new water treatment facility will not be operational until the end of October or November, according to officials who have spoken with the contractors. Meanwhile, Neskantaga remains dependent on the old system, which includes a machine that refills bottles with water for drinking but is difficult to use.

The community cannot pay for the emergency action from its budget without putting it at risk of default status with Indigenous Services Canada and placement into third-party funding agreement management, and loss of budget control.

“In the absence of policy guidance from Indigenous Services Canada, First Nations leaders should not be punished when they act quickly to avert a potential human rights and public health crisis,” Klasing said. “Such action creates an incentive to sacrifice community health and safety to avoid financial risk.”

Since 2015, Canadian officials have worked to eliminate drinking water advisories in First Nations reserves, lifting 87 long-term advisories through dedicated investments. However, at least 56 drinking water advisories remain in place and the underlying systemic water and wastewater problems facing First Nations in Canada remain, including a lack of regulations to protect drinking water on reserves.

Parliament passed the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act (SDWFA), which entered into force in November 2013, and called for regulations. In December 2015, a special Assembly of Chiefs sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution on safe drinking water for First Nations, which declared that the act “was developed without meaningful consultation with First Nations, is contrary to inherent authority of First Nation governments and does not reflect the principles of Customary Laws regarding water.” The resolution called for the repeal of the act. It reiterated the call for repeal in 2017 and called for the federal government to develop in partnership with First Nations the next steps in engaging with the SDWFA.

The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. Among other obligations to guarantee the right to water, Canada should ensure a continuous water supply for drinking, personal sanitation, washing clothes, food preparation, and personal and household hygiene. Canada also has an obligation to ensure that First Nations have the resources to design, deliver, and control their water access.

The Canadian government is aware of the condition of water infrastructure on First Nations reserves and should have contingency plans for major infrastructure failure, particularly in remote, fly-in communities. These plans should define roles and responsibilities around decision-making on possible evacuations or other extraordinary measures to protect the health and safety of community members.

In the absence of these procedures, the government should recognize the urgent dilemma faced by Neskantaga leaders when faced with a pump failure and potential liability for the resulting harm to health and human rights. Neskantaga should not have to bear the financial brunt for an infrastructure failure, and Indigenous Services Canada should work swiftly to compensate the community for the cost of evacuation, Human Rights Watch said.

“The federal government was unprepared to act to prevent serious harm from a failed water system, but that is no excuse to financially penalize Neskantaga leaders and community members for prioritizing their own health, safety and rights,” Klasing said. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Brazilians who defend the Amazon are facing threats and attacks from criminal networks engaged in illegal logging. The situation is only getting worse under President Bolsonaro, whose assault on the country’s environmental agencies is putting the rainforest and the people who live there at much greater risk.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal.

© 2018 Rob Symons

Sylvia remembers the first time a government official came to speak to her community in Lephalale, in the Limpopo province, about the construction of a new coal power plant. Like many other community members, she hoped that the plant would bring much-needed jobs and prosperity to her family.  

What she did not anticipate then was how the plant would further pollute the air and water in the area, putting her family’s health at risk. Her husband suffers from severe asthma that he believes is a result of the air pollution in the area and that makes it impossible for him to apply for jobs at the coal power plant.

ESKOM, the government-owned power utility is currently operating two coal power plants in Limpopo and an independent power producer has applied for a licence to build a third one. Last year ESKOM itself estimated that air pollution from 13 plants across the country is causing more than 300 premature deaths per year.

As governments, businesses and civil society converge on New York to attend the UN Climate Summit on September 23, they should be reflecting on the local and global impacts that government action or inaction on climate change will have on people like Sylvia.

Coal power plants, in addition to polluting the areas around them, are among the major contributors to global climate change, and in South Africa, coal-fired power stations are responsible for almost half of its carbon emissions. South Africa has already warmed at a rate twice the global average, and climate change is making droughts in South Africa more extreme and more frequent. Over the past few years, the recurring and worsening droughts in Limpopo resulted in severe water shortages, driving up the food prices and leaving residents like Sylvia without tap water.

Under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which South Africa is a party to, governments committed to significantly reduce their carbon emissions by phasing out fossil fuels—without doubt a challenging task for South Africa, given that 90 percent of energy is still produced from coal.

In its 2018 Draft Integrated Resource Plan the government committed to reducing South Africa’s reliance on coal for energy to less than 20 percent by 2050.  However, investments in coal continue, including for export, and research suggests that South Africa will not meet its  targets for reducing carbon emissions  in 2030 under its current policies. A recently filed lawsuit contends that that the government’s failure to reduce the deadly levels of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area is a violation of residents’ right to a healthy environment.

South Africa is not alone in its half-hearted approach to reducing emissions and regulating the coal industry. A new report by the UN human rights expert on the environment found that governments around the world, including those industrialized countries historically most responsible for the climate crisis, continue to support and subsidize investment in fossil fuels or other climate-harming activities—without regard to the local and global impacts  on the most marginalized communities.

In the United States, the Trump administration is rolling back regulations on coal mining, despite the dangers to the health of some of the poorest people  in the United States. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has undercut the environmental agencies responsible for protecting the country’s rainforest and effectively given a green light to illegal logging in the Amazon.

The urgency of the climate crisis is clear in a growing number of communities in South Africa and around the globe, particularly amongst those more marginalized and least able to adapt. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly made clear, failure by governments to drastically reduce their carbon emissions will result in an increase in food insecurity, diseases carried by insects, and other serious health problems.  

The Climate Summit in New York will bring a welcomed opportunity to focus on what governments need to do if they are serious about climate change. On September 9, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, asked governments to “contribute the strongest possible action to prevent climate change, and to promote the resilience and rights of [their] people”. They should listen to diverse voices from all parts of the world who can bear witness to the devastation already being wrought by climate change.  

But environmental and human rights groups can also use their combined expertise to push for progress curbing the effects of climate change, including by identifying solutions that have proven effective and that respect human rights to address climate change. Climate change activists and Indigenous peoples have long been fighting for climate justice. Human rights groups, including my own organization, Human Rights Watch, joined them more recently. Global and local groups working together, combining their skills and experience, can help ensure accountability in the fight against the climate crisis, locally and globally.

An important step in that direction will be the Peoples’ Summit, a global civil society gathering in New York. Environmental and human rights groups will meet ahead of the UN Climate Summit to strategize how they can work together most effectively, using the human rights framework to strengthen climate action and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable communities.

There are already some good examples of that at the local level. In Limpopo, environmental justice groups are challenging the construction of the new coal power plant based on its local and global climate change impacts, affecting the livelihoods of marginalized populations. Sylvia co-founded an organization that is advocating to protect the health of women in her community from the impacts of coal power plants in Lephalale.

At the UN Climate Summit in New York, civil society groups should amplify these efforts in the international arena by pushing political leaders to take urgent and ambitious action on climate change that is necessary if they are to meet their obligations to protect the human rights of their people.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them, and the government is failing to protect both the defenders and the rainforest itself.

(São Paulo) – Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them, and the government is failing to protect both the defenders and the rainforest itself, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. 

The 165-page report, “Rainforest Mafias: How Violence and Impunity Fuel Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon,” documents how illegal logging by criminal networks and resulting forest fires are connected to acts of violence and intimidation against forest defenders and the state’s failure to investigate and prosecute these crimes. 

“Brazilians who defend the Amazon are facing threats and attacks from criminal networks engaged in illegal logging,” said Daniel Wilkinson, acting environment and human rights director at Human Right Watch. “The situation is only getting worse under President Bolsonaro, whose assault on the country’s environmental agencies is putting the rainforest and the people who live there at much greater risk.”

Cláudio José da Silva is the coordinator of the “Forest Guardians” of Caru Indigenous Territory, in the Brazilian Amazon. The Guardians patrol indigenous land to detect illegal logging and report it to the authorities.

© 2019 Brent Stirton/Human Rights Watch

The criminal networks have the logistical capacity to coordinate large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber, while deploying armed men to intimidate and, in some cases, kill those who seek to defend the forest, Human Rights Watch found.

On September 23, 2019 the United Nations will hold a summit meeting to discuss global efforts to mitigate climate change. As its contribution to those efforts, Brazil committed in 2016 to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 170 people, including 60 members of Indigenous communities, and other local residents in the states of Maranhão, Pará, and Rondônia. Researchers also interviewed dozens of government officials in Brasília and throughout the Amazon region, including many who provided inside accounts of how President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies are undermining enforcement efforts. 

During his first year in office, Bolsonaro has scaled back enforcement of environmental laws, weakened federal environmental agencies, and harshly criticized organizations and individuals working to preserve the rainforest.

More than 300 people have been killed during the last decade in the context of conflicts over the use of land and resources in the Amazon – many of them by people involved in illegal logging – according to figures compiled by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, in Portuguese), a nonprofit organization, and cited by the Attorney General’s Office.

Human Rights Watch documented 28 killings – plus 4 attempted killings and over 40 cases of death threats – in which there was credible evidence that those responsible were engaged in illegal deforestation and saw their victims as obstacles to their criminal enterprise. Most of the cases are from the past five years. Some victims were environmental enforcement agents. Most were members of Indigenous communities or other forest residents who denounced illegal logging to authorities. 

In the Terra Nossa settlement in Pará state, a resident was killed and another disappeared after they announced plans to report illegal logging to authorities in 2018. The brother of one of the victims, who was investigating the crime, was also killed, as was the leader of a small farmers’ trade union after he too announced plans to report the illegal logging. Residents of the settlement reported that all four men were killed by an armed militia working for a criminal network of landowners who were, according to an internal government report, engaged in illegal logging.

Those responsible for the violence are rarely brought to justice. Of the more than 300 killings registered by CPT, only 14 ultimately went to trial; of the 28 killings Human Rights Watch documented, only two went to trial; and of the more than 40 cases or threats, none did. 

This lack of accountability is largely due to the failure by police to conduct proper investigations. Local police, who acknowledged the failure, say it is because the killings take place in remote areas. Yet, Human Rights Watch documented egregious omissions in investigations of killings that occurred in towns, not far from police stations, including the failure to conduct autopsies. 

Investigations of death threats fare no better, with officials in some locations refusing to even register complaints of threats. In at least 19 of the 28 documented killings, threats against the victims or their communities preceded the attacks. Had authorities investigated, the killings might have been averted.

Indigenous communities and other local residents have long played an important role in Brazil’s efforts to curb deforestation by alerting authorities to illegal logging activities that might otherwise go undetected. Scaling back environmental enforcement encourages illegal logging and results in greater pressure on local people to take a more active role in defending their forests. In so doing, they put themselves at risk of reprisals.  

Since 2004, Brazil has had a program to protect human rights and environmental defenders, but government officials interviewed agreed that the program provides little meaningful protection.

During Bolsonaro’s first eight months in office, deforestation almost doubled compared to the same period in 2018, according to preliminary official data. By August 2019, forest fires linked to deforestation were raging throughout the Amazon on a scale that had not been seen since 2010.

Such fires do not occur naturally in the wet ecosystem of the Amazon basin. Rather, they are started by people completing the process of deforestation where the trees of value have already been removed; they spread through the small clearings and discrete roads that have been carved by loggers, leaving veins of dryer, flammable vegetation that serve as kindling to ignite the rainforest. 

As the world’s largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon plays a vital role in mitigating climate change by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide. When cut or burned down, the forest not only ceases to fulfill this function, but also releases back into the atmosphere the carbon dioxide it had previously stored.“The impact of the attacks on Brazil’s forest defenders extends far beyond the Amazon,” Wilkinson said. “Until the country addresses the violence and lawlessness that facilitate illegal logging, the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest will continue unchecked.”

Cases documented in the report include:

  • Gilson Temponi, president of a farmers’ association in Placas, Pará state, reported to prosecutors in 2018 illegal logging and death threats from loggers. In December of that year, two men knocked on his door and shot him to death.
  • Eusebio Ka’apor – a leader of the Ka’apor people who helped organize forest patrols to prevent loggers from entering Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Territory in Maranhão state – was killed in 2015. Shortly after his death, six of the seven members of the Ka´apor Governing Council, which coordinates the patrols, received death threats from loggers.
  • Osvalinda Pereira and her husband, Daniel Pereira, both small-scale farmers, have received death threats for nearly a decade since they began reporting illegal logging by a criminal network in Pará state. In 2018, they found two shallow graves dug in their yard, with wooden crosses affixed on top.
  • Dilma Ferreira Silva, an environmental activist in Pará state, and five other people were killed in 2019 under orders – according to police – of a landowner involved in illegal logging who feared that Silva and the others would report his criminal activities.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

An external view of the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) headquarters in Parma, Italy, February 16, 2018.

© 2018 ANSA via AP Images

In several European countries, pregnant women risk consuming food contaminated with the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that could be harmful to the fetus.

Last month, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) stated that the pesticide does not meet the safety criteria for renewed approval by the European Union. The agency joins eight EU member states and a growing number of children’s rights and environmental advocacy groups around the world pushing back against the use of this dangerous chemical.

Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide commonly used on food crops, has garnered international media attention in recent months due to its links to neurotoxic health issues. The pesticide belongs to a class of chemicals called organophosphates – a group of compounds that alter the structure and function of the human nervous system. Scientists have coupled chlorpyrifos exposure with neurodevelopmental challenges, as well as an array of symptoms including dizziness, confusion, respiratory paralysis, and even death. Many of these outcomes are particularly hazardous to children because their bodies and nervous systems are still developing – and because they may absorb toxic chemicals more easily than adults.

The EFSA’s finding that there does not exist a safe exposure level for chlorpyrifos comes at a critical time. The approval period for chlorpyrifos use in the EU expires in January 2020 and the manufacturer’s application to renew this approval is currently under review by the European Commission.

Earlier in July, the United States missed a similarly critical opportunity to protect public health when the Trump administration ruled against enacting a 2015 EPA proposal to ban chlorpyrifos. Still, environmental and public health advocates in the US are rallying, particularly at the state and local levels. Most recently, Human Rights Watch joined over 80 organizations in signing a letter urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to approve a bill banning chlorpyrifos in New York state.

Come January, the EU has an opportunity to act where the US has failed. Failure to protect against known dangerous pesticide exposures violates the right to health. EU officials should seek to better protect Europeans’ health – and uphold human rights – by not renewing the approval of this neurotoxic pesticide.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The damage done by Hurricane Maria was far worse than Alvarez, or anyone, could have imagined. With broken roads, and hospitals overwhelmed as blackouts roiled the island, she gave birth at home a few weeks later. She relied on her doula skills and a friend to stem her own bleeding which, like the first two births, was excessive.


Mariel Alvarez, Doula and mother

What was it like to be seven months pregnant during Hurricane Maria?

Last week, Puerto Rico was again under threat, as Hurricane Dorian tore across the Caribbean, almost exactly two years since Hurricane Maria made landfall. Heavily pregnant women, and those who have recently given birth, will have no doubt watched the news with same deepening sense of dread experienced by Alvarez and others two years ago.

Puerto Rico was lucky. Gathering hideous strength, Hurricane Dorian veered away from the island. But the hurricane did massive damage to the Grand Bahama and Abaco islands, leaving residents homeless and authorities scrambling to find missing people and provide water and food. And Dorian will doubtlessly expose – as did Maria – the unique vulnerabilities of particular groups, including pregnant women and those who have recently given birth.

While Hurricane Maria spared no one, pregnant women and those who had recently given birth were vulnerable to the storm’s wrath in unique ways. Their stories have been lost in anger and finger-pointing over the flawed emergency response and slow disbursement of recovery funds by US President Donald Trump’s administration. But they need to be heard: global warming climate crisis means Caribbean islands (and other areas like the eastern US seaboard) will face increasingly severe hurricanes with increased precipitation, like Maria.

In 2018, a year after Hurricane Maria, Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, and NGO staff, and 16 women who were pregnant or had recently given birth when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. Each of these women faced unique and extraordinary challenges, but taken together their testimonies paint a picture of the distinct challenges pregnant women and new moms faced. New mothers and pregnant women struggled for months after Maria hit with the healthcare system in shambles, and difficulty knowing how and where to access the scant services that were available to them.


Dr Yari Vale Moreno, ObGyn

What problems do women face because of lack of access to clean water and electricity?

Adli, 25, said that she began having sporadic contractions at home during the 2017 hurricane, and worried that she might go into labor months before she was due to give birth. She said she could not locate her doctor and was unsure whether her hospital would be open. “It was a very precarious situation,” she remembered.

Yulisa, 23, recounted how her sister missed prenatal appointments following Hurricane Maria, and when she was able to make it to a hospital, they were unable to do a prenatal exam. She said that soon after her attempt to access care at the hospital, her sister had a pre-term birth, and the baby died the next day. Gabriela was six months pregnant when Hurricane Maria struck. She said she could not attend prenatal check-ups for two months afterward because “after the hurricane everything was closed, the roads were covered in trees,” even though she was suffering from such acute gastritis that she could not sleep lying down during this time. One woman named Carolina could not find a way for her premature baby, born four days before Maria, to get her vaccinations.


Lourdes Santaballa, CASICA

How did you deal with infant care after Hurricane Maria?

The lack of water also meant keeping caesarean section or vaginal wounds clean was harder, women told us. Dr. Yari Vale Moreno, an obstetrician, worked in a mobile clinic that went out to find patients in places where the clinics were not functional. She found widespread vaginal infections because many had little or no clean water.

Other women faced a myriad of other problems: no electricity meant nowhere to store pumped breast milk even if you could find a generator to pump. Some interviewees said lack of clean water made them feel more dehydrated and making formula an acute problem on top of many others. New mothers struggling to breastfeed couldn’t find help. Supporting mothers with breastfeeding, which provides babies with both the nutrients and safe water, is recognized as a lifesaving intervention in disasters, including in the US


Lenulisy Rosado Estradam, Oxfam

What was the impact of Hurricane Maria on how women perform domestic tasks?

An Oxfam report also showed how women and girls carried the burden of washing houses, clothes, and the soiled sheets of bedridden relatives by hand without electricity and running water.

Epidemiologists who calculated the excess mortality after the storm found that almost 3,000 additional people died in the months after the storm. It’s not known how many of these deaths were maternal deaths, or what maternal morbidity (serious injury connected to pregnancy or giving birth) was like after Maria. Most people died two to three months after Maria hit, and people in poorer areas died in higher numbers, often where electricity was restored last.


Tania Rosario, Taller Salud

What matters in how a disaster is responded to?

After Maria, community organizations, including women’s rights groups, like Taller Salud in Loiza municipality, stepped in to take on some responsibilities of the state including by running large aid distribution efforts, feeding thousands with donations from the Puerto Rican diaspora. They made sure domestic violence victims had housing so they didn’t have to move back in with abusers, that pads and tampons were included in their distributions. They saw first-hand the importance of considering gender in disaster response. So far, no government authorities have sought their reflections and expertise nor, as far as they know, has it been incorporated in disaster planning.

The insights from groups like Taller Salud should help guide and be included in Puerto Rico’s disaster plan. This plan is still not finished; in May this year its drafters said that they had not consulted with women’s rights groups while drafting an emergency action plan, which, two years after Hurricane Maria, has still not been made public.  


Maria Fernos, InterMujeres

What needs to happen now that we are in hurricane season again?

The epidemiological study found the failure of planning and communication, as well as disparities between communities in wealth, were all key reasons why Hurricane Maria’s aftermath led to a secondary public health disaster far more deadly than the high winds and water that killed 76 people. Adaptation policies – plans for how Puerto Rico will cope with the impacts of the climate crisis – and hurricane readiness are critical and can mean the difference between life and death for thousands.

There will always be pregnant and postpartum women in disasters. Their needs and vulnerabilities will be different, as Maria showed, and as Dorian will very likely show us again, and need to be seen and prepared for long before the next devastating storm hits.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

View of a former mine pit, now flooded, at the old mine site in Kabwe. In the foreground is an area where small-scale miners still work today. © 2019 Diane McCarthy for Human Rights Watch

“Henry” is thin and small for his age. The 10-year-old, his mum and I are sitting outside in the dusty, poor township of Waya in the Zambian city of Kabwe on a hot, dry afternoon.

His mum, looking weary, describes their life near the city’s former lead and zinc mine. She worries about her children’s health and tells Henry and his siblings to avoid the dust that blows over from there.

A few years ago, Henry was found to have extremely high amounts of lead in his blood, high enough to warrant immediate treatment, according to medical experts. But he never received any medical care.

Kabwe’s mine dates to the colonial period: a British company opened the mine in 1904. Anglo American took over in 1925 and remained in charge for nearly 50 years. Early on, doctor’s certificates revealed that smelter workers experienced lead poisoning, but the company continued to mine, smelt and poison the environment.

In 1974, Zambia nationalised the mine and closed it 20 years later. A comprehensive cleanup was never undertaken. The government subsequently issued several licences for companies to mine the site, allowing them to further harm people and the environment.

And so, 25 years after the mine closed, children’s homes, schools and play areas are highly contaminated, resulting in extremely high levels of lead in their blood.

More than 6-million tons of mining waste remain in place, and dust from these uncovered waste dumps blows over nearby residential areas. The most visible dump is known locally as the “Black Mountain”.

About half of children living in the affected neighbourhoods need medical treatment, experts say. Lead can cause stunted growth, anaemia, learning difficulties, organ damage, coma and convulsions, and even death. Children are particularly vulnerable.

When Human Rights Watch visited Kabwe in 2018 public health facilities had no kits for lead testing, nor any medicine. Many residents said they felt fearful, and helpless. “You see dust is everywhere. It is all over. So, this lead just can’t stop spreading,” Henry’s mother told me. “The president should bring us medicine,” Henry added.

The Zambian government has issued a large-scale mining license to British company Berkeley Mineral Resources (BMR), which is planning to reprocess lead, zinc and vanadium from the mine’s waste in a joint business venture with SA company Jubilee Metals

Human Rights Watch wrote to both companies asking what they were doing to prevent harm; BMR referred us to Jubilee Metals, and Jubilee Metals did not respond.

An environmental impact assessment submitted by a BMR subsidiary in 2015 was grossly insufficient, according to experts consulted by Human Rights Watch. It lacked vital information and failed to demonstrate how the new venture would protect the community from harmful effects.

The government recently said it will require a new environmental and social impact assessment. The government is indeed responsible for ensuring that any waste-reprocessing activities comply with Zambia’s environmental laws and are scrutinised for harmful human rights and environmental consequences.

The government has also issued a few licences for small-scale mining in Kabwe. Such mining in lead-contaminated soil carries huge health risks for miners’ families and the wider community as it produces more dust, and workers carry dust home.

So far, efforts by the government to clean up residential areas and test and treat children have been insufficient; even the World Bank, which funded the efforts a decade ago, has acknowledged problems. A new World Bank-funded project began in December 2016. After a slow start, testing and treatment are to be made available in the coming months, which should bring relief to the families of Henry and many others. There are also plans to clean up homes and possibly schools.

But unfortunately, this new effort is not the proper, lasting, and comprehensive cleanup Kabwe needs. That would include the former mine — the source of the contamination — as well as roads, schools, and all homes and public places nearby. The government told Human Rights Watch it does not have the resources for such a cleanup.

The UK law firm Leigh Day has announced it is preparing a class-action case against Anglo American SA on behalf of people from Zambian communities near Kabwe mine who are suffering from lead exposure.

Leigh Day and its SA partner attorneys are seeking compensation for victims of lead poisoning, including the cost of an effective medical-monitoring system for blood lead levels among the community.

Win or lose, the case is a powerful reminder that the Kabwe legacy and the children who are still being poisoned as a result can no longer be ignored.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

Years have passed, but Kasuba* still remembers when she was tested for lead as a child of about 8. The World Health Organisation says that there is no safe level of lead exposure. But the amount of the metal in Kasuba’s blood was up to 12 times higher than the levels a WHO 2003 paper argued already result in neurological effects in children, specifically declines in IQ.

She says she was given milk and soya as treatment.

Today, public health facilities in the Kabwe area of Zambia where Kasuba lives about 150 km north of Lusaka have no access to the typical treatment for lead poisoning – chelation – to help remove the toxic metal from their blood, a Human Rights Watch report released Friday revealed.

Clinics here also lack the kind of tests to detect lead poisoning that would be a first step towards treatment.

When I visited Kasuba, now 26, in November, she sat across from me on a wooden bench in her yard, in a yellow T-shirt and colourful skirt, cradling her 4-month-old son. He and her other son, she observed, could have lead in their systems too since they grew up in the same neighbourhood of the mining area.

Lead can be passed from mother-to-child via breastmilk. But it’s also all around Kasuba’s sons, in the dirt they play with or that swirls in the dry air and that ends up on their hands – which like most children’s, eventually end up in their mouths. Traces have also been found in some surface water in the area.

Kasuba spoke of headaches and said that her six-year-old son also complained about them. This is consistent with the symptoms of lead poisoning, although it is not possible to definitively attribute the frequent headaches to exposure to the metal.

Neither of her boys had been tested for lead, she explained.

But others in the community have. A study by University of Zambia researchers and published in 2015 in the journal Chemosphere found that each of the 246 children under the age of 7 it screened had enough lead in their blood to cause neurological impairments.

Two years later, the international organisation Pure Earth tested another 196 children between ages 2 and 8. The research, released by the United States Centers for Disease Control, found that the children’s average blood lead level was itself higher than the level at which chelation is advised.

Last November, I visited Chowa and several other lead-affected areas to learn more about life there from community members like Kasuba. What I found was a new generation of children exposed to lead poisoning.

The devastation is the product of pollution dating back to 1904, when a large lead and zinc mine opened under British colonial rule. The mine’s smelter contaminated the residential areas around the mine with lead fumes, which lingered in the soil and dust. By 1927, South Africa’s Anglo American had a controlling interest in that mine. The mine was nationalised soon after independence and closed in 1994.

But government actions to address the problem since have been largely ineffective.

In Kabwe’s town library hangs a poster from a government project that ended in 2011.

“Protect your child from lead poisoning” the poster reads in large, capital letters.

In the library’s research room, binders thick with yellowing pages chronicle the government’s past efforts that have failed to substantially reduce lead levels in Kabwe’s soil or to protect future generations of children from lead poisoning.

The government’s main clean-up strategy has been to plant grass in the area to reduce dust and provide clean topsoil. Both methods have proven unsustainable. For instance, Human Rights Watch found that community members could not afford to water grass in the years after the programmes ended.

The government also failed to address several ongoing sources of lead dust, including unpaved roads and the old mine itself.

In late 2016, the Zambian government initiated a five-year World Bank-funded project that includes new environmental clean-up and health interventions to address lead in Kabwe. But delays mostly due to bureaucratic issues, say government officials, mean that efforts will only begin later this year.

This new project is an opportunity for the government to address a crisis that has been present for generations. New efforts must adopt a comprehensive and sustainable approach to environmental clean-up, one that involves either containing or removing lead-contaminated soil.

The government should clean up the lead in all areas affected by the contamination, including homes, schools, health centres, and other public areas. It should pave roads in contaminated areas to prevent lead dust from harming residents.

While in Kabwe, I spoke with other parents and guardians like Kasuba, who lived in lead-affected areas but whose children or grandchildren had never been tested for lead.

“I need my grandchildren to be tested. I have two in the house”, insisted a grandmother in Kabwe’s Chowa township.

Meanwhile, some parents and grandparents from the areas of not only Chowa, but also the nearby townships of Waya and Makululu, said their children had been tested and diagnosed – but never adequately treated.

“They tested our children and found them with lead,” observed a mother of two in Waya, “but they can’t provide medication.”

Zambia should use new funding to provide lead poisoning testing and treatment to all who are affected by lead and regularly monitor lead levels in the community.

Those most vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, such as children under the age of five, should be the first to get tested and treated. This has to coincide with clean-up efforts so that those who are treated are not re-exposed to lead when they return home.

Going forward, the government should also develop a plan to address the long-term contamination risk posed by the old mine site, where windblown lead dust continues to jeopardise community health.

The lead contamination in Kabwe has been a public health emergency for generations. This new project is an opportunity for the government to respond, at long last, with the urgency that is warranted.

*Not her real name

Joanna Naples-Mitchell is a research fellow in the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

How did you first become aware of the problem in Kabwe?

We learned about it from an environmental group several years ago but became interested in doing our own research after seeing a young person from Kabwe speak at a United Nations event. Lead is in the soil and dust, and children in Kabwe have some of the most severe cases of lead poisoning in the world. About a third of Kabwe includes lead-contaminated neighborhoods that are home to roughly 76,000 people.

How do you know that Kabwe has one of the most severe contamination levels in the world?

Human Rights Watch isn’t a scientific group, but a number of reputable academic and scientific studies from as recently as this year have already been done by others in Kabwe that show the lead levels in soil, and also in children’s blood.

Why are children specifically at risk?

Lead contamination can be toxic for both children and adults, but it has particular effects on children because their bodies are still growing and their brains are developing. Their bodies absorb as much as four to five times more lead than adults.

Children are also much more likely to be playing in the ground or in the soil, and that’s where the lead is. They are more likely to ingest lead if it is on their fingers or if they are eating food outside.

What are the symptoms?

According to medical experts, symptoms can be as severe as coma, seizure, or even death. Short of that, symptoms include severe stomach pain, severe headaches, memory issues, concentration issues, and learning difficulties in school. Lead poisoning can also lead to stunted growth.

When you went to Kabwe, did you meet children and adults displaying these symptoms?

We met a number of people who wanted to speak to us, including some children who had severe stomach pain, headaches, and memory and concentration issues. Many of those children had been tested by the government in the past and found to have high lead levels in their blood.

Does that mean they had lead poisoning?

Those symptoms are consistent with lead poisoning, but because we are not medical doctors or experts, we can’t say whether they are from lead poisoning.

The most important thing is that existing studies show large numbers of children in Kabwe – more than 50 percent – have extraordinarily high lead levels in their blood, which means regardless of their external symptoms, they could be experiencing severe internal effects that are invisible.

What difficulties did you face doing this research?

There is a lack of good public records showing what percentage of Kabwe is affected by lead. There has been periodic testing by the government since the 1990s, but that only included hundreds or maybe a few thousand people. There are likely tens of thousands of people who have been affected by lead. It was hard for us to access documentation on the scope of the problem.

That said, the World Bank – which recently provided funding to the Zambian government to further address this issue – notes in its documents that there are over 76,000 people living in contaminated areas, so that’s the benchmark we use.

What is life like for children in Kabwe?

There are children playing throughout the neighborhood, sitting on the ground, playing games, eating outside. There is really very little parents can do to protect them from the threat in the environment.

We met one father who wouldn’t let his baby play outside or crawl on the ground because he wanted to protect him.

One girl, who was about ten years old, had extraordinarily high lead levels when she was tested by the government during a previous World Bank project. She also had such severe stomach pain that she had to miss school.

Families throughout Kabwe have to live with this uncertainty, seeing that their kids are sick without knowing if the symptoms are from lead poisoning or if they can help them.

Can you talk more about the World Bank project?

In December 2016 the Zambian government launched a new World Bank-funded project designed to address cleanup of the mining site as well as testing, treatment, and education of people in the areas. This is a follow-up to a previous project that ran from 2003 to 2011 that didn’t sufficiently address issues.

What has been done so far?

Families throughout Kabwe have to live with this uncertainty, seeing that their kids are sick without knowing if the symptoms are from lead poisoning.

Joanna Naples-Mitchell

Children's Rights Researcher

Not a lot that community members have seen. We have been in touch with several government ministries, and they said the cleanup project faced a lot of bureaucratic obstacles to get off the ground, which is part of the reason it had been delayed.

They say that there will be visible results by the end of the year.

Does the government understand the extent of the issues?

It does seem that the government takes this issue seriously. But they have also indicated they don’t have sufficient resources to address the scope of the problem.

We would say that the government has a responsibility to fully address the contamination because this is a human rights issue. If it does not currently have sufficient resources, it should prioritize making a concerted effort to secure them.

Where is the lead coming from?

The mine has contaminated the soil. Because Kabwe is very dry for much of the year there’s a lot of lead in dust that blows around and gets in people’s homes. Lead contamination has been found in homes and back yards, in at least one school, in roads which in some parts are unpaved, and in a health center.

A full cleanup effort would have to address all of these sources of contamination.

What about the mine that caused the contamination?

The mine closed in 1994 but was never properly sealed off and piles of waste are still there. There’s not even a wall or fence around the mine. It continues to be a source of contamination, since the wind blows more lead dust into the community. People with no other way to make money also go there and work as small-scale miners, and this leads to more exposure as they can bring lead dust back on their clothes and shoes.

The government is aware this mining is taking place and the new World Bank project includes creating new livelihood opportunities for people.

How should the contaminated neighborhoods be cleaned up?

Cleanup isn’t simple, but there are different models that have been tried in Kabwe and elsewhere.

In one neighborhood an NGO [nongovernmental organization] put a cloth membrane on the contaminated soil and then put new soil and grass on top. They also used a special vacuum in homes to remove lead particles and put cement doorsteps in place. This seems to have been pretty effective, but it can’t eliminate the threat of road dust or people bringing the lead dust from their clothes into their home. It’s not a long-term solution without parallel measures to address other sources of lead exposure.

We leave it to the government to determine what the best model is.

Who should be tested?

Children under five are the greatest priority and should all be tested. But then everyone in Kabwe also has the right to testing. Lead can be transmitted through the placenta or breast milk so pregnant women and new mothers also should be a priority for testing.

Does everyone who has lead in their blood need treatment?

According to medical experts and various studies, different lead levels require different treatment. Anyone with extremely high levels of lead should be considered for a treatment that removes lead from the blood stream, called chelation therapy. That can be in the form of pills or injections.

Below that level, the best treatment would be nutritional supplements and monitoring.

Also, no matter what the level is, someone who receives treatment for lead poisoning should not be returned to a lead-contaminated environment.

In an ideal world, what should happen now?

All homes, schools, health centers, and public spaces should be cleaned. The old mine dump should be fully closed and sealed, and the waste properly disposed – as has been done in some old lead mines elsewhere. The roads should be paved and maintained to contain the lead dust, and the government should set up a permanent system of testing and treatment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Melanie Hung contributed to this interview.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Three girls play the game isolo on the ground in the lead-affected township of Waya in Kabwe. Soil is the main source of lead exposure in Kabwe.

© 2018 Zama Neff/Human Rights Watch

(Johannesburg) – Lead exposure around a former lead and zinc mine in Zambia is having disastrous effects on children’s health, Human Rights Watch said today. The Zambian government should promptly clean up the contamination and ensure proper treatment for all who need it.

The 88-page report, “‘We Have to Be Worried’: The Impact of Lead Contamination on Children’s Rights in Kabwe, Zambia,” examines the effects of lead contamination in Kabwe, a provincial capital, on children’s rights to health, a healthy environment, education, and play. Twenty-five years after the mine closed, children living in nearby townships continue to be exposed to high levels of toxic lead in soil and dust in their homes, backyards, schools, play areas, and other public spaces. The Zambian government’s efforts to address the environmental and health consequences of the widespread lead contamination have not thus far been sufficient, and parents struggle to protect their children.

“The profits of Kabwe’s mine came at a very high cost to generations of children who have grown up with toxic lead found throughout surrounding townships,” said Joanna Naples-Mitchell, children’s rights fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “While the Zambian government has made several attempts to clean up the lead since the mine closed in 1994, the actual scope of the problem has yet to be addressed.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 residents of townships near the former mine, including the parents or guardians of 60 children who had been tested since the last government cleanup project ended and found to have elevated lead levels. Human Rights Watch found that government-run health facilities in Kabwe currently have no chelation medicine for treating lead poisoning or lead test kits in stock, and no health database has been established to track cases of children who died or were hospitalized because of high lead levels. Education for children with disabilities or learning barriers is a country-wide challenge in Zambia, and in Kabwe, the disability screening process does not even investigate lead-related causes.

Human Rights Watch has engaged the Zambian government, including the Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development, in dialogue throughout its investigation, and invited the government to participate in the news conference to release the report. On August 12, 2019, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Mines sent Human Rights Watch a letter stating that the organization would not be allowed to release the report at an event in Lusaka. Rather than engage with Human Rights Watch over its substantive findings, the letter attacked the report as an “attempt to discredit the government.”

“The real threat to the government’s credibility lies in its own indefensible efforts to suppress our findings,” Naples-Mitchell said. “Instead of attacking its critics, the Zambian government should articulate a clear plan for living up to its responsibilities in Kabwe.”

Children are particularly vulnerable because they are more likely to ingest lead dust when playing in the soil, their brains and bodies are still developing, and they absorb at least four times as much lead as adults. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause learning barriers or disabilities; behavioral problems; impaired growth; anemia; brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage; coma and convulsions; and even death. Lead also increases the risk of miscarriage and can be transmitted through both the placenta and breastmilk.

“I’ve never attended a meeting about lead poisoning. Never ever,” a staff member at a local hospital told Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard when you’re not tracking. It’s absent in our documents. It’s just not there.”

From 2003 to 2011, the World Bank funded a Zambian government project intended to clean up lead in affected townships in Kabwe and to provide testing and treatment for children.

But about 76,000 people continue to live in contaminated areas. In a 2018 study, researchers estimated that over 95 percent of children in the townships surrounding the lead mine have elevated blood lead levels and that about half of them require medical intervention.

Human Rights Watch found that the Kabwe mine’s waste dumps remain, exposing nearby residential areas to windblown lead dust and threatening community health. The government has neither removed the waste piles nor sealed the site, both of which have been done elsewhere in the world to treat affected sites.

Ongoing small-scale mining poses additional health risks. And plans by private companies to process the mineral waste at the site will present further risks without strong regulation and monitoring.

In December 2016, the government began a five-year World Bank-funded project to clean up lead-contaminated neighborhoods and conduct new rounds of testing and treatment. Government officials and World Bank representatives told Human Rights Watch that the government intended to start the remediation and health components later in 2019. In a July 2019 letter to Human Rights Watch, the government also indicated that it does not have enough resources to address the full scale of the contamination.

The project includes plans for testing and treating at least 10,000 children, pregnant women, mothers, and other individuals, which will be overseen by the district medical officer in Kabwe. Given the total number of residents in lead-affected areas, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the project will not reach all affected children and adults.

The Zambian government should adopt a lasting and comprehensive plan to address the impact of lead contamination, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that it provides for long-term containment or removal of lead hazards and that it addresses the full scope of the contamination in affected areas, including homes, schools, health centers, and roads.

Initial rounds of testing and treatment under the new project should give priority to those who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, including children under age 5 and pregnant and breastfeeding women, Human Rights Watch said. Ultimately, all children and adults in Kabwe should be eligible for testing and treatment. All treatment, especially chelation therapy, should coincide with cleaning up the patient’s home environment. Otherwise they will be re-exposed to lead.

The government should also deepen its efforts to address lead-associated disabilities or learning barriers, given the likelihood that these affect children in Kabwe, Human Rights Watch said. Schools should ensure that they adequately respond to the needs of many children facing learning disabilities or barriers potentially connected to lead poisoning, and that they provide the needed accommodations and individual learning support.

If small-scale mining is to continue, the government should ensure that operations are licensed, regularly monitored, and only conducted in accordance with mining regulations and the law. The government should scrutinize any future waste processing project for potential human rights and environmental impact.

“Thousands of children in Kabwe developed lead poisoning because they grew up in contaminated neighborhoods,” Naples-Mitchell said. “The government should adopt a lasting solution, assure a better future for the children of Kabwe, and clean up the lead.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am