By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
Hundreds of people in East Africa, including some artisanal gemstone miners, have lost their lives in recent weeks due to flooding caused by weather phenomena (think El Niño). In Kenya alone, at least 136 individuals have perished according to Kenya’s Ministry of Interior.
More reports reveal that nonstop rains since October have affected 80 percent of counties across the nation.
Voi, the largest town in Taita-Taveta County in southern Kenya, which is also near mining regions, suffered human losses and material ones, and thousands were displaced. A trio of miners died after torrential rains swept through their Tsavorite mining site. These incidents occurred in the same county where the Bridges Tsavorite mines are located.
“The site is located near the village of Kamtonga, less than 30 minutes from our Scorpion Mine,” says owner Bruce Bridges, son of Campbell Bridges, who discovered Tsavorite in Northern Tanzania in 1967.
After the Tanzanian government nationalized their mines, his dad followed the vein into southern Kenya, and they have been mining there since 1970. [Campbell was murdered at one of his mines in 2009, and his son has since run the operation.]
On Monday, Nov. 27, the miners’ site was flooded, and by Tuesday word had gotten out. When Bridges heard about it, he instructed his Scorpion Mine manager, Joseph Mwangi, and other personnel to offer assistance. The Bridges’ team learned the names of the miners—Dominic Ndolo Maei and Pascal Mwanzia Maei (brothers) and Kyalo Mulwa—and that they slept in the mine overnight to protect their production from thieves. Heavy rains deluged the tunnels, submerging and trapping them underground.
“The mine is located at a valley and is mined Zurura style whereby there are many large and deep prospecting trenches and pits where alluvial soils have been extracted, leaving a network of tunnels underneath,” explains Mwangi.
This way of digging, common among artisanal miners, is fraught with safety issues like a lack of water-catchment systems. A maze of tunnels crisscross each other underground so when it rains and there’s no water containment system in place, the tunnels flood, creating mudslides and sludge that can only be removed by water pumps and exhausters.
On Tuesday, Nov. 28, employees from the Teita Sisal Estate, a large employer in the region, brought in a water pump to help on scene. On Wednesday, Nov. 29, the county government brought in an exhauster to pump out the sludge, eventually exhuming the bodies.
“Professionally run mines don’t have these issues,” says Bridges. “Artisanal mines can when they don’t implement water diversion measures. It’s a dangerous way of operating that revolves around the rainy seasons in East Africa. Right now—from November to December—is the short rainy season, but that doesn’t mean the rains aren’t strong. This is the sad reality of artisanal mines without proper safety measures in place.”
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