The Kinshasa-Lubumbashi flight that took off at dawn on Congo Airways is pleasant, I even find – surprise – the latest issue of Mining and Business in the seat pocket. As soon as I arrive in Luano, where Chico, a strong man who presents himself as my driver, awaits me, I get back to the road again. It will take us another five hours of travel on the well reprofiled track between Kasumbalesa and Sakania. The motorcycles, the ‘bicycle trucks’ of the makala sellers in a hurry to get it over with and the ‘mamas’ carrying their basins loaded with contraband products on their heads all indicate that the goal has been achieved.
The avenues are wide, lined with brand new gutters. ‘It was the former Governor who did all this,’ Chico tells me with a touch of pride in his eyes, ‘and it was the mine that paid…’. I will learn at a later stage that it is indeed ‘Frontier’, one of the jewels of the ERG group that honoured the $10 million bill! Not far from the red brick church, about fifty women and children, equipped with yellow jerrycans, wait their turn at the foot of a reservoir to get their water supply. A first clue for my investigation.
Sakania was created in 1910 to accommodate the last station of the railway line from Élisabethville connecting Congo to Zambia. Located a few miles from the border post, the city of now 65,000 souls was therefore thought of around this colonial station. But if, at the time, the Railway Company (KDL) chose this village of Sakania, it was not by chance. Steam locomotives were coal-intensive, but they also required a lot of water. The city was therefore born thanks to its river, the Lubembe. The concession where the spring is located was protected by eucalyptus trees. A concrete container (see photo) completed the closely monitored system. The company, the future SNCC, had even built a water tower, which when the train switched to diesel, supplied the entire village, which, before the arrival of the mine, had no more than ten thousand inhabitants. ‘No, sir, it’s not possible to take a shower at this time… There’s no water during the day! This is the situation we have to face since the river disappeared! ’, declared the manager of the Angel’s Inn, where I chose to spend the night. The round-bellied papa – whom I obviously just got out of his nap – makes me understand that there is nothing he can do about it. So I will remove the mixture of sweat and reddish dust stuck to my skin with this bucket which, thanks to the thin stream of water still leaking from the tap, will eventually fill up.
Honour where honour is due: My first visit takes me to the Mze Fridolin, the most respected traditional chief in the region. The ‘old man’ receives us in his courtyard where an out of age mango tree is enthroned. Once the customary courtesies have been applied, he engages in conversation in Bemba, with an interpreter, on the topic of the day. ‘For some time now, customs have been flouted here. For example, it is not possible for us to dig up a dead person in cemeteries to bury another one! We have already warned the authorities that respect for customs is very important and that otherwise unfortunate consequences, such as the one we are witnessing, can occur.’ Is that the answer I’m waiting for? Did the spirits steal the water because of the lack of respect for ancestral traditions? Cartesian and not very sensitive to this explanation, I insist a little to bring my Chief back to the side of the mine. Finally, a hypothesis a little closer to my logic is put forward by the faithful guardian of customs: ‘According to the elders, it is the natural pipe that was cut between the Mwalolua swamp and the source of the Lubembe. The river has two springs connected by a natural conduit that the mine has broken. But no one knows where or how.’ Hypothesis to be explored and to check with the ERG group.
Suddenly, lowering his voice slightly to make me understand that he trusts me, Chief Fridolin suggests: ‘If you go to Zambia, you will see that the little river overflows. While here we’re short of it! So all we have to do is divert this pipe, and make it feed our side!’
I left my host and his yard, accompanied by two of his twelve dogs, obviously happy to smell the stranger of the day. Next visit, Father Gabriel. This indefectible Salesian was for a time the mediator between the mine and the population around this issue. He will most certainly know more about the subject. We are at the Catholic mission in Sakania on the hill overlooking the source of the Lubembe.
In the distance, primary school pupils sing a ‘B and A: BA’, ‘P and A: PA’. The overwhelming October sunshine makes the mangoes blush and, from time to time, they come to drum the tin roofs. The air is dry. But in Sakania, ‘since something happened at the mine, the whole town has been deprived of water and our schoolchildren are dehydrated,’ the priest says. ‘Until 2016, we never had any problems. The water was flowing in our river. We have a Lubembe spring right here on which we were able to install a pipe and a pump. But it was really in May 2017 that the significant decrease in water levels occurred. We didn’t understand what was going on. With all the serenity that characterises him, Father Gabriel confirms to me Chief Fridolin’s version and explains that “when they dug the new, deeper pit, they broke through the water table and the water that flowed to the spring now flows into the pit and is pumped to Zambia”. “ We talked to the people who are in charge of the social affairs of the mine. They suggested that we send correspondence to the appropriate person. Now that our source is dry, they have invited us to introduce a letter to ask for a borehole. A letter with all the elements and a thousand details… Like someone who doesn’t want to give you anything.’
ERG, in the midst of a turmoil with the closure of CCC, is obviously playing the watch and does not seem to care much about the plight of the Sakanians. And yet, ‘It is a disaster’, Father Déo insists. ‘The students are dehydrated and get sick… We have about 3,000 of them and we are very worried. We don’t know what saint to devote ourselves to! At school, we wait for the rains to collect water for the household and latrines. Think about it! People now wash their clothes with dirty water from the main gutter coming from the camp!’ To my questions about the boreholes, seen when I arrived in town, Father Gabriel, who cannot be described as a revolutionary, burst into flames: ‘People tried to react and fight against the mine, and the wells were drilled to calm them down… Eighteen months it’s been going on! But the worst part is that our Zambian brothers see the river overflow regularly on their side! This situation can no longer last, we lose hope, it is no longer meetings or pity that people need, but water!’ The passers-by interviewed will confirm to me that they have been running around the city every day to fill their canisters for more than a year and a half. I will also learn that the fish ponds are dry. According to some witnesses, the level of the river has dropped as suddenly as strangely, as if someone had removed a suction cup…
Tired of the parade of experts and facilitators of all kinds in Sakania, many are angry. Thus, according to Maman Alphonsine, with a yellow canister on her head, ‘experts, UNILU academics and deputies came from Kin, from everywhere, to study the case. The visit ends with the mine, and they keep quiet… In the city, where many families have a Frontier employee, we fear retribution if we are a little too vehement on the subject.’ ‘People are willing to pay for drinks…’, says the young Victoire, who should give birth to her child in a few days. Regardless of the different explanations for the disappearance of the Lubembe, the population seems convinced of the mine’s direct responsibility.
On ERG’s side, which has never shone for its transparent communication, the company is shutting itself away in silence. No communicationresponsible to receive Mining & Business editorial staff. Mr. X finally agreed to talk on the phone, rejecting the idea of an accident that diverted the river. Only concession: he admits to pump more water today than he used to. The last word will be in Bemba for the local chief, Mr. Bigdjo ‘ma français ina uwa mukini’. Too much French is useless, speeches will not solve the problem, we must act now.
LAST MINUTE NEWS
At the time of printing, we have read a report of a meeting of the consultation framework on the problem of the drying up of the Lubembe.
Under the chairmanship of the Director of the Direction de Protection de l’Environnement Minier (DPEM), the National Commissioner for Rural Development, the Provincial Minister of Mines, 4 representatives of civil society and 4 representatives of the ERG group were present.
Overall, it appears that the commitments made by Frontier SA have been respected in the short, medium and long term.
• Repair of 8 pumps
• Drilling of 3 additional wells with a double distribution system.
• Beginning of the implementation of 3 large diameter wells capable of supplying more than 400 m3/hour
From this, the design of the water supply system can be finalized.
The results of the impact study are expected to be available in early 2019, so far there is no technical evidence of a possible link between the mine and the dewatering of the source.
Finally, Frontier SA insists on the fact that it carries out these actions in the context of development support, linked to its corporate social responsibility, not in compensation for an established fault.