Monday 16 December 2019

Twenty seven known deaths following collapse at unlicensed gold mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Twenty seven people are now known to have died following a collapse at an unlicensed gold min in Haut-Uele Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday 14 December 2019. The incident happened at about 5.30 pm local time at Ndiyo, roughly 40 km from the town of Watsa. The miners are understood to have tunnelled about 20 m underground at the site, and rescuers initially thought that the collapse was caused by this activity, but it is now thought to have been the result of a landslide covering the mine, which was itself triggered by days of heavy rain in the area. Landslides are a common problem after severe weather events, as excess pore water pressure can overcome cohesion in soil and sediments, allowing them to flow like liquids. Approximately 90% of all landslides are caused by heavy rainfall. 

Landslip above a gold mine at Ndiyo in Haut-Uele Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Post Online.

The incidents occurred after about a month of heavy rains, in one of the area's two annual rainy seasons. This two rainy seasons per year pattern is typical in equatorial countries, with rainy seasons around the equinoxes and dry seasons around the solstices. Upland areas of East Africa have always been prone to landslides, but the problem has become worse in recent years as a rising population has led to more agriculture on hill-slopes, in many areas replacing open woodland where tree roots served to stabilise slopes, and also to more people living in harms ways. This years rains have been exceptionally heavy, and fatalities due to similar events have also been reported in other parts of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopian, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Burundi and the Central African Republic.
The rains this year are thought to have been made worse by the development of a meteorological phenomenon called a Negative Indian Ocean Dipole. Indian Ocean Dipole Phases are similar to the El Niño/La Niña climatic oscillation that affect the Pacific Ocean. Under normal circumstances equatorial waters off the east coast of Africa and west coast of Indonesia are roughly similar in temperature, however during a Negative Indian Ocean Dipole Phase the waters off the coast of Indonesia become significantly warmer. As the prevailing currents in the area flow west to east, this warm water is then pushed onto the shallower continental shelf of north Australia, where it warms the air over the sea more rapidly, leading to increased evaporation (which fuels rain) and a drop in air pressure over the east Indian Ocean and west Pacific. This in turn drives air currents over the Indian Ocean to flow more strongly west to east, leading to higher rates of  cooling off the coast of Africa (where more water is drawn up from the cool sea depths) and more warming off the coast of Indonesia, fuelling a feedback cycle that tends to remain through the winter season in any year when it forms. This leads to a particularly wet winter across much of Australia, as well as a potentially damaging heatwave in the north, while much of East Africa is at risk of drought (during a Positive Indian Ocean Dipole Phase the reverse happens, with drought in Australia and flooding in East Africa).
Areas of warming and cooling and air flow during a Negative Indian Ocean Dipole Phase. Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
The Democratic Republic of Congo one of the world's largest producer of precious metals, but benefits little from the industry. The country has suffered years of political instability and has extremely poor infrastructure, is heavily indebted and has a chronic corruption problem, which means that little of the wealth generated from the industry makes it into government coffers, and that which does is unlikely to be spent on development or other projects likely to benefit the population. These problems are made worse by a series of conflicts in the area, which plays host to rebel groups opposed to the Congolese government and militiamen that fled the 1994 conflict in Rwanda and have never returned. In addition the area has suffered incursions from several neighbouring countries, mostly with an official purpose of defending borders against Congo's instability, but with a strong interest in the mining industry. Militia groups linked to neighbouring states also operate in the area, and again are said to be involved in illegal mining.
The lack of government control of the area, and low regard for human life held by many of the groups operating in the area, means that safety precautions at mines in the area are almost non-existent, with many mines simply being large holes dug into poorly consolidated sediments. The area suffers extremely high levels of rainfall (it is the source from which the Congo, Nile and Zambesi rivers originate), and mines can rapidly turn into death-traps as their sides turn to mud and collapse upon the miners.
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