Drought in Papua New Guinea Heightens Tensions over Gold Mine

by |March 14, 2016
In Porgera, many of the local rivers pass through or near a gold mine. The Kakai River and its tributaries are some of the most heavily impacted. Photo: Joshua Fisher

In Porgera, many of the local rivers pass through or near a gold mine. The Kakai River and its tributaries are some of the most heavily impacted. Photo: Joshua Fisher

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, tensions between local villagers and a gold mining operation over access to clean water are being heightened by a prolonged drought. The mining company has a legal contract and the needed permits to divert water from local streams and reservoirs for its operations. But the drought has made it increasingly difficult for local residents to get clean water.

Joshua Fisher, director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity, writes about the consequences in a story published by the Climate Diplomacy website. Fisher’s group has been making trips to the region to talk to villagers, sample contaminants in the environment and discuss solutions with local officials.

Because most villages in the area lack improved water infrastructure, they depend on rainwater harvesting to meet their entire household water demands, Fisher writes. But the El Nino of 2015 resulted in a severe drought.

“When the rains fail to come, villagers rely on streams, springs and rivers, and when those stop running they have to find enough money to buy water. For places like Porgera in Enga Province, the situation in 2015 became acute, as local rivers have since the 1990s, been either concessioned for use in industrial processing at the Porgera Joint Venture gold mine, or permitted for liquid tailings and waste release by the mine.

Industrial tailings from gold mining are discharged into the local river system, eventually diluting the waste to safe levels. Here, Joshua Fisher prepares to take measurements of the water column in the mixing zone at the confluence of the tailings discharge and the Pongema River. Photo: Sarah Knuckey

Industrial tailings from gold mining are discharged into the local river system, eventually diluting the waste to safe levels. Here, Joshua Fisher prepares to take measurements of the water column in the mixing zone at the confluence of the tailings discharge and the Pongema River. Photo: Sarah Knuckey

“When the rains stopped in Porgera, local communities were left with a bitter choice: drink water that might be contaminated by industrial tailings, or go without.”

The impact of continuing climate change on rainfall patterns is a “potential game-changer,” Fisher says. The resulting water insecurity increases already existing tensions between villagers and the mine. “The result is an environmental conflict that plays out in a variety of ways, including threats of litigation, increased confrontations between mine security and surrounding communities, intra and inter clan rivalry, and increased police and military operation in the area,” he writes.

The conflict highlights the difficulty of achieving the UN’s newly minted Sustainable Development Goals, which include water security, and the creation of institutions that are responsive to their citizenry. This can be especially difficult in a country whose economy depends upon water-intensive extractive industries like the gold mine in Porgera.

Read the full story by Fisher at the Climate Diplomacy site here. For another look at the consortium’s project in Papua New Guinea, check out this State of the Planet story.

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