What is crystal clear is that the Konawaruk River, Cuyuni/Mazaruni is severely polluted, can’t be drunk from, its banks are eroded and the course of the waterway is changing. What is also clear is that Guyana has an adequate Environmental Protection Act (1996) and the Environmental Protection Agency is meant to be discharging its obligations under the Act. What is also clear is that the responsibility for the portfolio of environment has been bumped up to ministerial level and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission is meant to be monitoring mining operations, applying penalties and ensuring restoration of polluted zones. What is however as murky as the polluted river is why the agencies entrusted with protecting creeks and waterways like the Konawaruk have failed to take effective action.
It is not as if the Konawaruk fell into this condition last year or the year before that. For the last 10 or 12 years its sediment-laden water has been reflecting the callousness of its degradation. It is has been transformed into an outhouse of the mining industry. The government has for more than two decades been trying to convince the public that it is well interested in the fate of these ancient waterways and would take steps to protect them. Indeed, former President Jagdeo has built an international reputation around the sobriquet Champion of the Earth. What a shame it is that some of the international judges are unable to see the Konawaruk and other waterways. It is also the same government that has convinced Norway that it is interested in forestry protection and ensuring that wanton mining is not allowed. The evidence from the Konawaruk stands as a troubling riposte to that position. Mining is unquestionably an important part of the country’s past and present and will remain so in the future. However, as with all extractive industries a fine balance has to be struck. It is the responsibility of the government to set the framework and to enforce it. Unfortunately, it has not been diligent in this. It will find it hard to blame the opposition or the changed circumstances in Parliament for this failing.
Over many years, this newspaper in these columns has called into question the sincerity of the government as it relates to environmental protection. Notwithstanding the importance of mining to the country and its economy, this newspaper has had a longstanding position against alluvial mining and particularly the ripping up of banks and river beds. The current state of the Konawaruk is an example of why this position has been taken.
Following questions posed by this newspaper, the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Mr Robert Persaud issued a response on Saturday. He listed a number of steps that had been taken over the years but tellingly, two things stand out. The last major investigation of this besieged river was by RESCAN in 1994, the data for which cannot be found and that since an investigation of pollution claims in 2011 nothing else seems to have been done.
What the government, the Office of the Prime Minister – previously responsible for mining, the Minister of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission need to do in this case is to provide a detailed account of what measures have been taken over the last decade to assess the state of the Konawaruk, determine the factors behind the pollution, mitigatory actions that have been put in place and the programme of action to sustain protection of the river. This is the only way that the government would be able to convince the public that it is serious about protecting waterways particularly those away from the public eye. Minister Persaud’s reply does not suggest that there is a comprehensive programe for addressing troubled rivers like the Konawaruk. It took a visit by a team from this newspaper to document the current state of the river and present it to the public. The resources at the disposal of the government should allow it and its regulatory bodies to make regular visits to this and all other mining-pressured rivers in the country. The lament from the GGMC and other regulatory agencies is always one of insufficient staffing. That is not an acceptable excuse in an era of heightened commitment to the environment and awareness of the risks posed by mining.
The turbidity findings for this river would most likely be off the scale. When last has any such reading been used as the basis for any decision? Yet the government has for years advised miners that the standard for release of tailings water is 30 Nephelometric Turbidity Units. Just over five years ago, Stabroek News visited another river in the Cuyuni/Mazaruni, the Arau. There the turbidity reading at the time was 65.4 NTUs and the residents were besieged by miners polluting their waters and other ills without the government and the regulatory bodies taking action.
Mining is undoubtedly here to stay and is now the single most important pillar in the economy. Though the gold price has waned, the returns here are clearly still lucrative. However, there must be sanity and balance. The miners association should also accept that it has a role to play in protecting areas like the Konawaruk particularly as its members have been traditionally opposed to hefty environmental bonds and penalties.
The responsibility for protecting the waterways from injudicious mining falls to the government and its regulatory bodies. If they don’t have sufficient personnel to monitor rivers and rein in polluters can they adequately scrutinize large-scale miners, several of which are to start operations in a few years? It was this type of weakness that failed to detect warning signs prior to the catastrophic Omai Gold Mines Limited tailings dam collapse in 1995.
Konawaruk and other polluted waterways stand as an indictment of the government and its regulatory bodies. They must act now. Minister Persaud must be held to his commitment to address the plight of the river. What must also be done now is an assessment of the state of other waterways such as Tiger Creek and the Arau River to determine the extent of damage from mining and how restoration can begin.