Zambian villagers are taking a multinational
copper mining firm to court in the UK, accusing it
of poisoning their water. The BBC’s Nomsa
Maseko visited the area which has allegedly been
Dressed in colourful sarongs and t-shirts, the
women of Hippo Pool village collect their water on
the banks of the Kafue River on Zambia’s copper
As the sun sets and the weather starts to cool
down, they carry the water in large buckets which
they balance gracefully on their heads as they
walk back home.
It is water they will cook with, clean with, drink
and irrigate farms.
But a catastrophe may be looming.
When I visited, I could smell and even taste the
The communities of Hippo Pool, Kakosa, Shimulala
and Hellen say the Mushishima stream and the
Kafue have become rivers of acid.
Hundreds of villagers who claim copper mining
operations in the area have poisoned their water
source and destroyed farmland are taking Zambia’s
biggest copper mine, Vedanta Resources Plc, to
Leaked documents, that the BBC has seen, appear
to show that Vedanta Resources – through its
Zambian based Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) –
have been spilling sulphuric acid and other toxic
chemicals into the water sources.
A whistle-blower, who worked for 15 years with
KCM, alleges that since Vedanta bought the mine
in 2004, corners have been cut to save the costs
of running operations.
“I see an environmental catastrophe coming our
way,” said the source, who asked not to be
named. “The lives of the people will be shattered.
“I decided to speak out because I could no longer
be part of the destruction any more because the
next generation will not have kind words for us,”
Konkola Copper Mine (KCM) denied in a statement
to the BBC that it had failed to maintain critical
equipment adequately or that heavy spillages and
massive leakages occurred due to degraded
equipment and leaking pumps and pipes.
KCM went on to say that it has spent $530m
(£350m) to improve the environmental
performance of its operations. This includes
replacing slurry waste pipelines to the pollution
control dam and putting in a new smelter, which it
says captures 99.7% of sulphur emissions.
The soil in the copper belt used to be rich and
highly productive but now produces virtually
The community believes this is due to pollution
entering the stream.
Leo Mulenga’s only source of income used to be
The 65-year-old showed me cassava plants which
normally reach up to four meters in height.
His were not even one metre tall and they were
“I used to grow cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes and
bananas but now, there’s no future here – only
poverty and suffering for everyone because this
land is damaged and spoiled,” said Mr Mulenga.
Walking around the dry and dusty farmland, I saw
a thick sludge of copper sulphate residue.
Near it was a shallow well from which the
community draws their water.
There is only one water source for the children at
Shimulala Community School.
We took a sample of the water which was cloudy
and had a foul smell.
A few minutes later the colour of the water turned
bright orange and the smell was overpowering.
The damage is not just to the farmland and water
supplies – people’s health is also being affected.
Floribert Kepapa draws water from the Kafue River.
He spent four months in hospital battling paralysis
and stomach pain. He also lost his wife and baby
son to illness.
He believes the water is to blame and he holds the
copper mine responsible.
“The water was clean before KCM took over. If my
children and grandchildren are to survive and live
healthy lives here, then KCM has to go,” said Mr
Paralegals from a British law firm Leigh Day
recently visited the copper belt to gather
testimonies from 1,800 members of the
community in Chingola mining town.
The villagers have joined forces to take their
pollution claims to the High Court in London,
where proceedings have been issued against
Vedanta and Konkola Copper Mines KCM.
KCM insist that it is minimising the environmental
impact of its operations because, it says it “cares
for its employees, the environment and
communities around its mining areas”.
But this is not the first time Vedanta has faced
facing legal action.
‘Dehumanised by greed’
In 2011, the Lusaka High Court ordered Vedanta
Resources and KCM to pay approximately $1.4m
(£900,000) to 2,000 residents of Chingola after
sulphuric acid and other chemicals spilled into the
confluence of the Mushishima stream and the
Kafue River in 2006.
In his ruling, the judge said Zambians “should not
be dehumanised by greed and crude capitalism
which put profit above human life”.
Vedanta later appealed against the judgment,
denying that it was responsible for the pollution.
Even though the verdict was upheld, the Supreme
Court significantly reduced the compensation to
people affected by the leakage.
Resolving these latest claims could take years.
Until this case is heard, and possibly settled, the
real price paid for copper could be one of poverty
and hardship for communities living in the boom
and bust of the Zambian copper belt.