- In March 2022, following the release of wastewater from the Rio-Tinto-owned QMM mine in southeastern Madagascar, thousands of fish turned up dead in neighboring lakes, sparking protests and a government investigation.
- Civil society groups say the mine’s effluent enters neighboring water bodies with alarming regularity, endangering people’s health and robbing them of their livelihoods, and that the mining company is doing little to better the lives of Malagasy people most impacted by its activities.
- The company says it is not responsible for the fish deaths and is providing water and aid to improve relations with local people.
- “If they want to maintain good relations, the first thing to do is not release untreated wastewater into the potable water of villagers,” Tahiry Ratsiambahotra, a Malagasy activist, told Mongabay.
LAKE AMBAVARANO, Madagascar — On March 5, 2022, following days of cyclone-induced flooding, executives at the Rio Tinto-owned QMM mine in Madagascar shot off an urgent request to the country’s water regulator. They wanted to release 1 million cubic meters (264 million gallons) of wastew ater into the Mandromondromotra River that flows along the mine’s northeastern perimeter.
A few days later, Simon Razanandriana’s eldest son, Derrick, came home with distressing news: Thousands of dead fish were floating on Lake Ambavarano, where their family has fished for generations.
The Mandromondromotra drains into Ambavarano, which is one of a string of estuarine lakes located between the mine and the Indian Ocean. The fishing hamlet of Manaka, or Emanaka, where the Razanandriana family lives, sits on the sandy bank separating the lakes and the sea. Plying their dugout canoes on subdued lake waters, fishers can sometimes hear the whirr of the mine’s heavy machinery over the roar of the ocean.
Civil society groups say the mine’s effluent enters neighboring water bodies with alarming regularity, endangering people’s health and robbing them of their livelihoods, and that the mining company is doing little to better the lives of Malagasy people most impacted by its activities. They say the threat posed by the mine grows as climatic changes bring more destructive storms to Madagascar’s shores.
A lake that belches dead fish
Perched at the foothills of the Anosy mountains, the port city of Fort Dauphin has always attracted outsiders: The French — who later colonized Madagascar — established their first settlement here. Tourists are lured by its scenic shoreline embellished with coastal lakes.
The three major interconnected lakes, Ambavarano, Besaroy and Lanirano, supply water and fish to the Fort Dauphin region, including the main city, which lies 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) south of QMM’s Mandena mining site. The fishers’ settlements are an hour by foot along a coastal path from the city’s edge toward the mine.
Word of the fish deaths spread quickly, and many fishers drew a connection between the dirty water they saw entering the lake from the mine next door and the fate of the fish. It wasn’t the first time. In December 2018, following fierce downpours, foul water from the mine flowed into the lakes, several residents told Mongabay. Then, too, the lake waters belched dead fish.
Rio Tinto did not respond to Mongabay’s questions for this story. However, in company documents seen by Mongabay, the mining company reported four such “incidents,” including the latest in 2022.
Derrick, 14, out fishing that March morning, was spooked by the sight and left the fish alone. But others took them home or brought them to markets in Fort Dauphin. Government-assigned experts came, snapped photos, collected water samples and scooped up the carcasses for an investigation. The governor of Anosy region, under whose jurisdiction Fort Dauphin falls, told the communities not to eat or sell the fish.
The governor also announced a fishing ban pending results from the inquiry. As the weeks stretched into months, the information void gave rise to incredulous op-eds about “fish suicides” and rumors of deliberate poisonings. All the while, frustration over the fishing embargo grew.
Over the course of one year, community members blockaded the mine at least two times, not just fishers but other residents who bear long-standing grievances against the mine, from land disputes to allegations of environmental ruin and thwarted aspirations for betterment.
The fishing embargo hit meager incomes and made food scarcer. The government lifted the ban three months later. But even today, fishing communities have no clear answers from the state or the mine about what caused the fish deaths and whether their water is safe.
The flow of water
Between January and March of 2022, five cyclones pummeled Madagascar. Two of these struck close enough to Fort Dauphin to throw a wrench in QMM’s mining operations. By February’s end, waters in the company’s mining pond had risen to a dangerous level, prompting the operator to divert the overflow into storage ponds. But the rains kept coming, and this stopgap arrangement did not hold. On the morning of March 5, the water started spilling into neighboring Lake Besaroy.
Despite repeated incidents of unplanned mine water releases into surrounding wetlands, the company says these spills haven’t impacted the environment.
“QMM accepts that there were dead fish in the water. However, water sample analysis and assessments done by the regulator showed … no link between the activities of the mine and the observations of dead fish,” stated a press release the company shared with Mongabay. For good measure, it commissioned a South African consultancy, Water Research Group (WRG), to investigate the matter. Final results from WRG are still awaited.
Rio Tinto has an 80% stake in QMM, which is registered in Bermuda, while the Malagasy government owns the remaining 20%. QMM earmarked three areas in the Anosy region for its activities, Mandena, Sainte-Luce and Petriky. It started extraction at the Mandena site in 2009, where it still operates today.
Here, it extracts ilmenite from mineral-laden sands. Titanium dioxide in ilmenite yields an ultra-white pigment used in everything from paint to cosmetics and even toothpaste. Mined ilmenite shipped from the Fort Dauphin port is processed at a Rio Tinto plant in Quebec, Canada.
The multinational, with head offices in the U.K. and Australia, is one of the world’s richest mining companies. In 2021, Rio Tinto reported total revenues north of $60 billion. That year Madagascar’s GDP stood at less than $15 billion.
It is an uneven relationship but one the Malagasy government appears reluctant to jeopardize. QMM is a major player in the country’s economic landscape. The mine is one of the country’s biggest foreign investments.
Despite its deep pockets, QMM’s parent Rio Tinto appears to struggle to manage its wastewater. Instead of following best practices the company is almost always playing catch-up, activists who have tracked the mine’s activities since its inception say.
The mine complex sits enmeshed in a lattice of lakes and rivers. It draws water for its use from these surrounding wetlands and, until recently, regularly discharged effluents into them.
QMM extracts ilmenite by dredging mineral-rich sands using a rig that floats on an artificial mining pond. The dredged sand is mixed with water, and the slurry is channeled through a series of spiral separators to isolate heavy ores like ilmenite from lighter ones like quartz and silica. Further extraction of ilmenite is done through magnetic and electrostatic separation.
But removing some minerals changes the concentration of other compounds in the leftover sands and the water used in the process. The company stores the reject sands on-site. It guides the process water to settling ponds and paddocks. From these, the water is channeled into wetlands within the concession, which drain into the Mandromondromotra River.
In company reports, QMM describes its water treatment method as natural. “Water management is based on chemical free processes, natural sedimentation into a paddock system and natural filtration through swamps,” the company said in a 2021 report.
“They call this natural treatment. There is no treatment,” Tahiry Ratsiambahotra, a Malagasy activist now based in France who has been involved in QMM-focused advocacy for more than 20 years, told Mongabay. “It is not natural. It is just a way to save money.”
At the end of 2021, facing persistent complaints, QMM stopped the routine release of process water into the wetlands. What it did not do was beef up its preparation for events like cyclones, which are a yearly occurrence in this region and expected to strike with greater ferocity in coming years.
Madagascar, especially areas like the mining site that lie on the seaward side of the Anosy mountains, can receive sudden bursts of rain during the wet season, which runs from November to April. This March, one of the longest-lived cyclones in recorded history hit the island nation. Fort Dauphin is especially vulnerable to downpours and flash floods like those witnessed at the end of February 2022 following cyclone Emnati that prompted the release of mine water.
“I am very confident the release of mine water was the cause of the fish kills,” Stella Swanson, an environmental consultant commissioned by U.K.-based nonprofit Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) to look into the fish kills, told Mongabay. “The combination of acidic water and elevated aluminium in the water released from the QMM site is the most probable connection between the water releases and the fish kills observed after those releases,” Swanson said in her memo.
Swanson said wetlands can be excellent natural treatment systems but they are not sufficient, and many Canadian mines install additional safeguards and treatments to prevent sudden discharges of contaminated water.
Fishers allege that the contamination occurs not just because of excess water being allowed to enter the waterways from designated discharge points but also from spillover from settling ponds and the artificial mining pond itself. To prevent this, the company built a berm, or raised bank, 30 meters (98 feet) wide and 4 meters (13 feet) high between its mining concession and the wetlands outside. Yet company documents show that such overflows happened in February and March 2022.
Rio Tinto has, in the past, acknowledged that its scheme is flawed. “After a certain period of time, the current water management system did not perform as expected,” the 2021 report said.
The company has documented problems with excess aluminum and cadmium and acidity of process water . Swanson described the water in QMM’s settling ponds as being “like vinegar” based on QMM’s own data.
According to ALT UK, lead and uranium concentrations in water bodies receiving discharge from the mine also exceed safe levels. Some 15,000 people rely on these rivers and lakes for drinking water. For years, the nonprofit has demanded that QMM provide fresh drinking water to these communities.
In 2022, the mining giant announced it would develop a “long-term water solution” by 2024 . That is 16 years after it started operations in Mandena and eight years shy of the site’s planned closure.
Living with a mine
An official with Madagascar’s top environment regulator — known by its French acronym ONE — who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told Mongabay that ANDEA, the water regulator, had made a mistake in allowing QMM to release wastewater into the river in March 2022.
The investigation commissioned by the government found aluminum levels at the discharge points to be higher than permissible limits, the ONE official said. But the results were not officially released because the authorities believed communities would protest regardless of the results, according to the official. “They [people] don’t trust government agencies,” the official said. “The communities think the authorities are all corrupt and work with QMM to the detriment of communities.”
Razanandriana, the fisher from Manaka, and Ratsiambahotra, the activist, shared a deep mistrust of the mine, regulatory agencies and the Malagasy state. “No one can help us. Even the government works with QMM,” Razanandriana said.
ONE and ANDEA both receive funding from QMM to carry out their regulatory functions, as mandated by the country’s mining code. The company also contributes not just to the federal government’s coffers through taxes and royalties but also to the local government’s coffers, via taxes.
Activists and observers said anger over the dead fish is a symptom of deeper grievances that surface regularly at the mining site. The company has faced opposition from the time it started working in the area. Three groups are most affected by the mine: traditional land owners who claim QMM took their land without proper consultation or compensation, communities who relied on the forests cleared by the mine for their livelihoods and fisherfolk.In May 2022, months of protests by members of all three groups came to a head when some villagers blocked the arterial road to the mine, bringing operations to a halt for five days. The military came in to break up the protests, and a coterie of ministers descended on the area to broker a settlement between the company and protesting community members.
As part of a settlement reached in May, QMM agreed to set up a grievance redressal process. Nearly 8,800 villagers registered complaints with commissions set up under the agreement. The fishers, who filed around 30% of these complaints, highlighted harm from the fishing ban and also losses accumulated over the years since the mine started operations. They described a decline in catches and the disappearance of aquatic species because of the deteriorating water quality and the construction of a dam outside the mining concession.
QMM built this dam at the edge of Lake Ambavarano to prevent saltwater intrusions, turning it and the area’s other brackish estuarine lakes into freshwater bodies so the water would be compatible with mine’s machinery. A study by a team that included QMM researchers conducted before the weir was built said the number of aquatic species, estimated at 50, could drop by half owing to the construction.
Despite the May accord, hostilities broke out again in December 2022, leading to another blockage of the mine access road. Protesters were unhappy with the grievance redressal process, how beneficiaries were decided, and how compensation was being calculated. A new agreement was signed in December, and the grievance redressal process came to a close this March but observers are unconvinced this is the end of Rio Tinto’s troubles in Fort Dauphin.
“QMM does not have a license from the public to execute this project,” Ratsiambahotra said. “This project was imposed by the government from [Madagascar’s capital] Antananarivo. That’s why everyone doesn’t accept it. This is why villagers protest each time.”
The fish deaths have only further soured relations with the company. QMM started providing drinking water to some communities living next to the lakes right after the deaths came to light. The company also provided food supplies while the fishing closure was in place. The food aid has stopped, but drinking water containers continue arriving in the villages from Fort Dauphin by motorboat.
QMM is now installing a water treatment plant by Lake Ambavarano’s shores that will supply cleaned lakewater to the communities.
“If they want to maintain good relations, the first thing to do is not release untreated wastewater into the potable water of villagers,” Ratsiambahotra said.
QMM said it was providing water and aid to improve relations with the people.
Vola Yolande, Razanandriana’s mother, told Mongabay that while villagers wait for the treatment plant, the water cans were not enough to meet their needs. They use the lake water for all their daily activities and continue to do so. Women, in particular, spend a lot of time at the lake’s edge washing clothes and dishes. “The water is dirty and smells bad,” Yolande said. “Even with soap, you cannot clean yourself.”
Razanandriana said he was worried about the health of his five children, but leaving was not an option. The hamlets lie outside the mining concession, so they were not part of a resettlement plan. “This is our ancestral land; if we leave, where will we go?” he asked.
Yolande said children in the village fell sick often, including her own grandchildren who complained of stomach pains. The nearest hospital is in Fort Dauphin, so when younger children get sick, elders carry them on their backs to the city. For the elderly and seriously ill, the only option is a canoe ride, a perilous journey if the trip must be made at night.
When the fish died, the stench hung over the hamlets for days. The question facing villagers was: What to do with the unwelcome harvest? Villagers did not want their children, who spend most of their day by the lakeshore, to accidentally eat the fish and fall ill. Razanandriana said they decided to bury the dead fish far away, on the lake’s opposite shore, “on the QMM side.”
But when asked about the water lapping at the shores of their settlements, he had no answers. “We know the water is not clean. It is dirty in its depths,” Razanandriana said. “What can we do? We don’t see a solution.”
Banner image: Dead fish on the shores of Lake Ambavarano. Villagers allege they died as a result of QMM releasing wastewater into the water body. Image Courtesy of Publish What You Pay Madagascar/Malina.
Rio Tinto must repair the damage caused by their Madagascar mine (commentary)