Mining in Kabwe

Kabwe is the fourth largest city in Zambia and is home to over 225,000 residents. It is the capital of the Central Province and the seat of the Kabwe District.

Kabwe was once the site of one of the continent’s largest lead mine and smelting operation. Rich deposits of lead and zinc were discovered there in 1902, in what was then Northern Rhodesia. Until Zambian independence, Kabwe was named “Broken Hill” after the Australian lead mining town of the same name.

Mining commenced in Kabwe in 1906 and the Mine continued to operate for almost 90 years until it was closed in 1994. During the lifetime of its operations it produced many tens of thousands of tonnes of lead and zinc. It was the only lead mine and smelter in the town.

The Mine’s operations and methods changed over time. The Mine’s processes responsible for the emission of lead-containing dust and/or fumes, included the following:

  • Lead-bearing ore, containing compounds of lead, zinc and other elements, was mined from the earth with machines.
  • The ore was crushed in the primary and secondary crusher and concentrated to remove waste matter.
  • The concentrated ore was passed through a sinter, which burnt off sulphides, producing lead oxide and zinc oxide.
  • The oxides were passed through a crusher.
  • The crushed oxides were then passed through a smelter, resulting in liquid lead and lead vapour which were purified in large kettles and tapped off at the base of the furnace.
  • Lead-bearing waste rock, so called kettle dross and tailings from these processes were deposited on mine dumps.

This map was produced by the Kabwe Scoping and Design Study (KSDS) of the Copperbelt Environment Project in 2006. It illustrates the interpolated distribution of lead in soils, in areas surrounding the site of the former Kabwe lead mine and smelter. Large areas of Chowa and Kasanda, extending into Makululu, indicated soil levels higher the 2,500 mg/kg. The study found that all areas tested across these communities exceeded levels generally regarded as acceptable by international authorities, with regards to residential areas. Also available in Bose-O’Reilly (2018).

All of these operations were conducted within or in the vicinity of the Mine premises, located in close proximity to residential areas. Over the course of the 20th century, the Mine’s owners developed townships around the mine. Black residents lived in the most undesirable areas, to the west of the mine, downwind of the mine dumps and the smelter. By the early 1970s, there were sizeable communities of poor, black residents and mineworkers living in the townships of Kasanda and Makululu, downwind of the mine.

“It is a revealing indication of the attitudes of former administrators to find that workers' homes and a school lie within the polluted area, in the path of the prevailing wind.”
Reilly and Reilly (1972)

As a result of the Mine’s operations, Kabwe is now one of the most lead-polluted sites in the world. Very high levels of lead in the soil around Kabwe – up to 1km from the smelter – have even been reported. For example, the US EPA limit is 400mg/kg of soil in play areas. In Kasanda, the soil level is over 3000 mg/kg. A recent study by Bohdan Kříbek and colleagues also recorded Pb soil ranges up to 20 000 mg/kg in the area of the former smelter and processing plant.

“It is recognised by all who have experience in mining that a township existing close to a mining location is not desirable, and while benefits of little real value are obtained, the interests of the Mine and the Public are, sooner or later, bound to clash in many ways…refuse, fumes and smoke from the furnaces of the mine plant, as well as water contaminated by the mining and metallurgical operations are drawbacks to which those employed in mining are of necessity always exposed, but which would be objected to by the outside public”
-Letter by the RBHDC, 1907

Overview of AASA’s Involvement

“…childhood Pb poisoning in Zambia’s Kabwe mining town is among the highest in the world, especially in children under the age of 3 years.”

John Yabe 2015