Deadly Myanmar mine disaster caused by poor planning, satellite-data sleuths suggest

First scientific investigation of Myanmar's worst mining accident has revealed that human error was responsible for the disaster in 2020 that claimed at least 172 lives.Hundreds of people were buried in a landslide after the wall of Wai Khar's open mine collapsed on July 2, 2020.An in-depth analysis of satellite and remote sensing data revealed poor conditions at Wai Khar Jade Mine in northern Myanmar. This is where more than 170 people were killed by a landslide that occurred last July.An international team of researchers behind the study1, the first to thoroughly document a Myanmar mining accident, said that the results show that poor management and design were responsible for the tragedy.The authors hope that the findings will help document mine collapses and improve site planning in Myanmar as well as other countries that are subject to frequent mining accidents.In Myanmar, jade mining has increased dramatically in recent years, with the majority of the proceeds going to jewellery and carvings for China. Around 400,000 people work in open-pit mines to find jade, sometimes with very little safety equipment. They supply 90% of the world's jade industry and earn an estimated US$8billion in 2011. 20% of all export revenues from southeast Asia states came from them.There are hundreds of deathsAccording to the study authors, Myanmar's jade industry is not well regulated. Mine collapses have been a common occurrence since 2004 and caused many hundreds of deaths. The authors claim that field surveys of mine sites in Myanmar are almost impossible due to a lack of transparency by the Myanmar authorities and political and ethnic conflict in northern Kachin, where jade mining is centered.In what is believed to be Myanmar's worst mining accident, rain started to soak the ground at Wai Khar's northern section of the open-pit jade mine. The authors write that a large volume of quarry slope materials fell into an open pit. This buried and killed at least 172 jade miners.Hpakant authorities had ordered mining companies to cease operations starting in July for three months to accommodate the monsoon season. However, poor freelancers continued to hunt for unpicked jade exposed to rain. Initial thought was that heavy rainfall was the cause of the collapse.Myanmar's National Human Rights Commission attributed the landslide to the failure of due diligence and risk assessment by mining companies, at least twelve of which had licences that covered specific areas of the Wai Khar mine at time of accident. Non-governmental organizations claim that the lack of regulation oversight by the government in Myanmar's mining industry is a serious problem, posing a threat to the lives of miner workers.Myanmar's mines are not well-regulated and account for up to 90% of the world’s jade. Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP via GettyMyanmar Gems Enterprise, the Myanmar government-owned regulator, issued the mining licenses. A spokesperson said that the mining operations at Wai Khar's open-pit mine had ended 29 June, before the accident. The government investigation found that rainfall had entered the ground through cracks in the rock and caused the landslide. The researchers hope that their research will help in the future governance of the sector.The companies involved in mining either couldn't be reached for comment or refused to answer Natures questions about the cause of the disaster.A team of researchers from Thailand, Brazil, Singapore, Brazil, and Thailand used remote sensing data and satellites to examine the collapse of the mine sites in Myanmar. These satellites are used to monitor the locations of mines in countries with strict mining regulations. Wang Yu, co-author of the study and a geologist at National Taiwan University, Taipei, said that there are many things we can do from space.Aggressive mining cyclesWang and his team used online video footage from the Wai Khar mine accident, satellite and aerial data, and historical data from a NASA space-shuttle mission that was launched in 2000 to look for signs of deformation.Rainfall and two factors are what the authors believe caused the wall to collapse. First, the walls of a mine were too steep due to the weakness of the rock around it. Google Earth images taken at intervals from 2013 to 2020 showed that the pit was subject to periodic landslides, Wang claims. Special steps were also taken to prevent the walls from collapsing.He and his co-authors wrote that the mining site is subject to aggressive mining cycles, which are further exacerbated by uncontrolled landslides. Although this allows jade to be mined more quickly, it creates hazardous conditions.Dave Petley, a geographer at the University of Sheffield who studies landslides, believes that the argument that the slope was too steep may be true. Although he cannot prove that the landslide was caused by mining practices, he believes operations should be designed in a way to prevent any deformation. He adds that the authors have shown that the walls of the mine were actively deforming prior to their failure.Poor mine designThe study authors also stated that the piles of mine refuse acted as a sponge for rainwater or groundwater and that they likely slowly leaked water into the pit, causing it to collapse. They claim that the waste piles were not close enough to the mine as they were detected by digital elevation data from NASA's spacecraft in 2000 and Japan’s Advanced Land Observing Satellite in 2006-2011.The authors sent an email to Nature stating that the pit was prone to mismanagement and poor design, but not blaming anyone. Our analysis is scientific in nature. They said that it should be treated as an autopsy report and not as a criminal complaint. To determine who is responsible, a thorough investigation will be required.Kyi Htun is an independent consultant in mining geology in Yangon, Myanmar's capital. He believes that poor site management, such as not monitoring the slope over time, and not properly disposing of waste, played a role in the accident. He says that no one has ever done mine design correctly at the Wai Khar mine.Helping other countriesSan Htoi (a spokesperson for Kachin Womens Association Thailand), visited the mine following the landslide and also stated that the findings were consistent with her observations. It is so dangerous.According to the authors, the team hopes that other scientists will be inspired to do similar analyses in countries where mining regulations are not as strict. One report states that between 2004 and 2016, 32 people died in mine accidents.Birendra Bajracharya is the coordinator of SERVIR Hindu Kush Himalaya Kathmandu. This international initiative uses geospatial technology to help address environmental problems. He says that other researchers will benefit from the methodology.Yunung Nina Lin (study co-author), a geologist at Academia sinica in Taipei, said she hopes that the families of the deceased can learn more about the history of the site and that those in power will be able to take the lessons from the research and turn them into concrete actions.