Gold digging takes toll on Irrawaddy river

Environmental damage caused by intensive gold digging along the Irrawaddy river has triggered health problems among locals in the Kachin state town ofBhamo, where authorities have allowed the practice to continue unrestrained.

High levels of mercury and cyanide used to detonate areas of the river bed are getting into water sources around the town, one Bhamo resident, compounding concerns about pollution caused by engine oil from the estimated 300 boats that, day and night, work the section of the river for gold.

“There are no more fish in the river and as most people here just drink water out of the river, they are suffering illnesses that cause vomiting,” said one man. “Doctors can’t identify what the illness is. The water has also gone cloudy due to the breaking down of river banks.”

Two companies, Thandar Shwe Zin and For Luck, who originally gained permission to explore the area for gold, have reportedly contracted out work to local diggers who pay one million kyat ($US1,150) per boat. Now they work there en masse.

“The boats carry this large machinery to pan gold. They blow away the water and suck in the soil; they use mercury, cyanide and acid,” he continued, adding that chemical dumps on land close to the river were not properly containing the waste.

“It’s just right next to our village – now you can’t find the dolphins anymore, and we sometimes see large fish dying.”

The increasing numbers of sand banks forming in the middle of the river had also caused knock-on erosion along the banks. As a result that section of the Irrawaddy river, which runs the length of Burma and whose diverse ecosystem sustains millions, has widened by some 200 metres in recent years.

“When it rains, water can flow into villages, causing cliffs to collapse and bringing houses along with them,” the man said.

Similar destruction along the Irrawaddy river in the Kachin state region of Myitsone brought operations to a halt last year, but Bhamo residents claim little is being done to rein in the rapacious digging around the town.

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