Liberia: Surviving on Swamp Water

Bendu Dukuly, one of the victims of Bea Mountain cyanide spill

.... Victims of the Bea Mountain cyanide spill say they’d rather relocate to an area with a safer water source but need support to move. 

Bendu Dukuly, a 23-year-old mother of two, has complained of pain and itching on her body as a result of the Bea Mountain Mining Corporation (BMMC) chemical spill in May this year, which contaminated the Mafa river in Jikardor town, Grand Cape Mount County. 

The apparent chemical spill came to light on May 22, when residents of the town shockingly discovered several dead fish and a dead dog in the Mafa river.  

“We did not know that the people put chemicals in the water, and my brothers and I went fishing there. When we came back, I decided to go to the upper part of the river to take a bath. In the evening, after taking a bath, my skin started itching. Later on, blisters started coming all over my skin. That’s how I went to the community clinic and they gave me medicine, and showed me ointments to buy to rub on my skin.” 

Even though she got the medicines and ointments, Bendu said she decided to go to the Kinjor Hospital, operated by BMMC, to seek further treatment. There she was asked to pay L$300.00 for a checkup and was later sent to a room where she paid another L$600.00 to see a doctor. 

Bendu says she has used her own money to treat herself and, even though the itching and blisters are gradually going away, she does not believe that the treatment she has received will suffice. So far, she says, she has spent around US$100.00 on treatment. 

For generations, the Mafa river has been a major asset to the livelihood of Jikardor town and nine other communities in the area. They eke out a meager living from fishing in the river, while also using the water body for domestic purposes, including cooking and washing. 

In addition to Bendu's skin irritations, one of the elders, Mr. Jimmy Kamara, says he has been gradually going blind since the chemical spill in the Mafa river. Pa Jimmy does not know his age but said his father took him from another town and brought him to Jikardor town in 1954, which he says is the earliest memory he has of himself. He, therefore, believes that he might be well over 70 years of age. 

It has been nearly five months since the spill and Bendu and Pa Jimmy are the only two residents of the town known to still be suffering from what they believe are the medical effects of the chemical spill. And for the 10 communities, comprising about 350 persons, the two infections seem small, until the livelihoods of all the communities are taken into consideration. 

Alieu Getaweh, the spokesperson for Jikardor Town, said since the town was mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not to drink from the Mafa river and the hand pumps in the town, the leaders urged the company to help build a reservoir to assist with the supply of safe water, but the request is yet to materialize.

Jikardor town has two hand pumps that appear to be in good physical condition. One hand pump, situated a distance from the town, near the Mafa river, is overgrown by bush after being abandoned by the residents of the town, fearing contamination. The other hand pump, located in the center of the town, is covered with moss due to lack of use because of the same fear. 

“Upon the pollution of the water, the company committed to providing a water supply monthly and brought a consignment, which included a few bags of rice and sacks of bottled water. During this period, EPA tested nearby swamp water and urged us to use it because it was safe,” Getaweh said. 

“The company is helping them and remains committed to working with everyone,” BMMC said in a brief response to the Daily Observer’s inquiry about the matter. 

However, The last consignment of rice and water delivered to the town was in July 2022.  On August 11, the EPA released a statement dropping all claims of water pollution against BMMC. 

“Something was responsible for the pollution, which is scientific,” the EPA statement said, quoting its Executive Director, Wilson K. Tarpeh. “We conducted the investigation and noticed earlier that there was indeed pollution,  so we asked the residents to stay away from the waters.” 

According to him, during this period when they realized there was pollution, the company was asked to reach out to the communities through its corporate social responsibility, which done by the company.

“The level of contamination we saw before no longer exists and the lives of the people as relates to the water sources are not at risk anymore,” Tarpeh said at the time, calling for 30 days additional to observe the natural occurrence.

However, according to Getaweh, although the town is currently getting water from the swamp, during the peak of the rainy season, the dry season is coming when safe drinking water will again become scarce.  Even when the rain is falling, he says, they avoid collecting the rainwater due to the blasting from the company that falls over the roofs of their homes in the form of dust, for fear that the rainwater might be mixed with similar contaminants. 

According to Getaweh, some members of BMMC have often visited Jikardor town to test the Mafa river but failed to share the test results with the leadership of the town. He said representatives of the company tested the water recently, on October 1, which raised concerns among residents of the town.

The EPA’s Director of Communications, Denise L. Dennis, told the Daily Observer yesterday that the Agency will have to send a technical team there to speak with the residents to verify their claims. 

“This is not something that we can just speak to now because it requires our technical people to verify,” management said.

Request for relocation

“We want the government to help relocate us because we were advised by the Environmental Protection Agency not to use the river and hand pumps. The dry season is almost here and we are afraid before something major happens to us, especially the children,” Getaweh said.

Getaweh said the adults can restrain themselves from the waterside but would find it difficult to restrain the children. Therefore, he said, the leadership believes the relocation of the town will end any future deaths or threats to the health of the residents of the town.

“If Bea Mountain is prepared to relocate us, we will identify a place. We don’t want something to happen to a child or our children before the government can relocate us,” Getaweh said. 

Though Bea Mountain earlier denied being responsible for the pollution of the river, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the Cyanide, a chemical used to wash gold but dangerous to human health, was allegedly spilled from the company’s new Liberty Gold Mine in Kinjor and emptied into the rivers that villagers used for cooking, fishing, and washing. 

According to Getaweh, Bea Mountain has ended the provision of the water supply. He said the company recently provided 61 sacks of bottled water, which is insufficient for the many residents. He said the operation of the company is affecting various homes in different towns and villages around Jikardor, which comprises 61 family heads and almost 350 residents.

Upon the discovery that the river had been contaminated in May, residents from the different affected communities decided to leave but were later asked to remain calm by leaders of the county. “We decided to take our things and move to the company yard due to fear of bigger things.”

Getaweh said the leadership of the communities urged the company to resume supplying the different communities with water, but the quantity of water supply from the company is insufficient for the huge population of the affected communities.