The clean-up is yet to start a year after it was promised.
Two rights groups, Human Rights Watch and the Nigerian Youth Climate Action Network (NYCAN), have taken to social media to remind President Goodluck Jonathan of his promise to release funds for the clean-up of lead-contaminated areas in Zamfara State.
The groups also urged the public to post comments to the president’s official Facebook page, asking why he has broken his promise to release funding for the environmental remediation.
Last May, the Nigerian government pledged about $5 million to clean up several Zamfara communities contaminated with lead during artisanal gold mining operations.
The groups said the government’s failure to release the promised funds to address the worst lead poisoning outbreak in recent history has left thousands of affected children dead or suffering a lifelong disability.
“More than 400 children in Zamfara State have died from Lead poisoning according to official estimates,” said Babatunde Olugboji, Deputy Program Director at Human Rights Watch.
“Unless the promised funds are released immediately, cleanup of the contaminated areas won’t be able to start until after next year’s rainy season, leaving thousands more children at risk of death and permanent disability,” Mr. Olugboji added.
The funds were to be channelled towards safe mining practices such as introducing equipment that reduces exposure to deadly levels of lead in the rock ore.
Artisanal gold mines are common throughout Zamfara State, where the use of basic mining techniques has resulted in an ongoing epidemic of lead poisoning among children in the state.
Human Rights Watch said when its researchers visited Bagega, one of the most heavily contaminated villages in the state, a family that it featured in its video that had already lost 10 children to lead poisoning, had lost another child to the outbreak.
Thousands of affected children cannot be treated, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), an independent international organization for medical humanitarian aid that has provided life-saving treatment to more than 2,000 children in Zamfara State.
The children remain in urgent need until environmental clean-up has been completed because treating children when they are still actively exposed to Lead makes their bodies more susceptible to the harms of lead poisoning, MSF said.
Over the last three years, TerraGraphics, a US-based company, has worked with local Nigerian staff to clean up seven villages in Zamfara and has provided initial support to clean up Bagega, which has about 8,000 residents.
The environmental clean-up of Bagega, which will only happen if President Jonathan releases the promised funds, must begin by mid-January to ensure it can be completed before the rainy season begins, NYCAN says.
“If President Jonathan does not release these funds right away, children in Bagega will be forced to continue living in poisoned homes,” said Hamzat Lawal, co-founder of NYCAN and a technical adviser to the group.
“Children in Bagega are dying. If we wait another year to clean up the conditions that are poisoning these children, more children will die or become permanently disabled,” he added.
Exposure to high levels of lead has led to brain, liver, kidney, nerve, and stomach damage, as well as permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities among children, who are the most susceptible.
The children are mostly exposed to the toxic ore through contaminated water and food, according to a research by Human Rights Watch in Zamfara in late 2011.
The study also showed that the children are exposed when they process ore in the mines; when their relatives return home from the mines covered with lead dust; and when the lead-filled ore is crushed manually or mechanically crushed at home.
“We have reached a crisis point in Zamfara,” Mr. Olugboji said.
“Thousands of children live in a toxic environment and are in urgent need of treatment.
“President Jonathan needs to make good on his promise and release the promised funds before the window of opportunity before the rainy season closes. But he needs to act right away,” he added.