The missing pieces of the Karonga earthquake puzzle

19th December

The first quake struck on the evening of Sunday 6th December, then a larger quake the next morning, followed by a series of aftershocks in the Karonga District of Northern Malawi. The ground was shaking as far as Mzuzu 150km away with the biggest quake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale. My parents who live in Rumphi between Mzuzu and Karonga, ran out of the house during each tremor wondering whether this was final days. Twelve  tremors were felt across three days. Homes and buildings have been damaged, one fatality when a child died after a wall fell on him. The government and Red Cross are providing assistance to the victims of the earthquake but equally the government should also provide answers as to what happened? Do people understand what causes earthquakes:  do they deem it an act of God, punishment from angry ancestors, or a sign of the end of days? None of the reports have  attempted to explain the reason for the quakes beyond stating Malawi is situated in the Rift Valley and the quakes happened near the uranium mining.

Malawi is certainly no stranger to earthquakes. I experienced my first tremor when I was young girl on holiday with my Dad having breakfast at Lingazdi Inn, Lilongwe. The second tremor, I experienced a  few years ago in Blantyre, when the ground beneath my bed shook me out of sleep. In 1989, a 6.6 earthquake killed at least 9 people and injured 100 in central Malawi and left another 50,000 homeless. Malawi sits on the Great Rift Valley,  a 5,000-kilometer-long geologic feature that runs north-south from Lebanon to Mozambique.

Map of Malawi, Karonga in the north

Rift Valley, Lake Malawi is the lake far south on the map

The ground on earth is called a crust and is cut up into  different plates. These plates move apart, stretching and thinning the crust (or the ground) as they move. The plates move because underneath them in the centre of the Earth is a very hot bubbling fluid called magma. In the earth, a fault is a line of fracture in the rocks where the two sides of the fault slide by each other. The movement can be up, down or sideways, and it is caused by pressure and tension in the rock. When a sudden movement happens along one of these fault lines, an earthquake happens. The result of these plates moving is a long chain of depressions, valleys, and deep lakes alongside towering volcanoes like Mount Kilimanjaro.

Now old fashioned, the Richter scale uses a seismometer to measures the magnitude of an earthquake from 1-10,  10 being most epic. A 5.0-5.9 magnitude like the one experienced in Karonga is described as moderate, causing major damage to poorly constructed buildings over small regions and at most slight damage to well-designed buildings. They occur across the world at a frequency of 800 per year.

They have been speculations that the earthquake could be connected to the uranium mining at Kayelekera.  Can mining cause earthquakes? A look at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website,  show that quakes can be induced by mining in various towns of the US measuring up to about 3.9 on the Richter scale. In 2007, a damning report linked coal mining to Australia’s worst earthquake.

So earthquakes can be caused naturally or man made. They are caused when stress, building up within rocks of the earth’s crust, is released in a sudden jolt. Can uranium mining cause stress powerful enough to cause an earthquake? Open pit mining commenced in Kayelekera in 2008. In open pit mining rocks or minerals  are extracted through a hole in the ground as opposed to tunnelling into the earth. The pits are created by blasting the Earth’s crust. A search on the internet was not able to reveal specific associations between the explosive blasts or uranium mining activity and earthquakes, however what should be seriously considered is the safety of mining a radioactive material in an Earthquake prone area.   Uranium realises a radon, a radioactive gas which causes cancer. Miners are at particular risk through direct contamination from the mine.  Accidents have occurred that have resulted in wide scale exposure to radioactive material through inhalation and ingestion. The location of Malawi in the Rift Valley, makes it prone to earthquakes, with no way of predicting when the next one will happen or how serious it will be. Bearing in mind Kayelekera is near Lake Malawi, it would be catastrophic if an earthquake resulted in contamination of Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi is vital to the nation – as a source of food, water, and tourism. Do the benefits in foreign exchange from the sale of uranium outweigh the possible costs to human life and the environment?

If anyone has pictures of the damage please let me know.