At least 168 people have been reported dead after a landslide struck an open pit mining facility in northern Myanmar.
The mine is located in the area of Hpakant known for its jade production. Jade commerce in Myanmar is worth more than $30 billion annually.
The landslide occurred on the morning of July 2, 2020. The ground failure was sudden and swept away numerous mine workers which were hit by debris and a large amount of water. “When the open-pit mine collapsed, the workers didn’t have time to run away. The height of the wave was about 20 feet and it drowned many people. It was like a tsunami,” U Tin Soe, Rector of Central Institute of Civil Service (Upper Myanmar), stated.
Rescue operations initiated on the same day but conditions were harsh due to bad weather. 168 bodies were recovered and 54 injured and hospitalized. Unfortunately, the death toll is expected to rise as rescue efforts proceed.
The slopes of the open pit reach more than 300 meters in height. The landslide occurred due to intense precipitation that struck the region in the previous days. Heavy rainfalls increase the pore-water pressure in the soil or rock particles of the ground thus, decreasing their normal effective stress which is associated with the shear strength of the material. This phenomenon frequently leads to ground failures. Moreover, according to reports, rainfalls eroded the foundations of the pit, a fact that also contributed to the destabilization of the slope.
According to Mr. Tin Soe, mining operations were halted on July 1, 2020, after a governmental decision that considered the high risk of landslides during the rainfall season. However, as soon as the official company paused mining works, illegal miners came into place in an effort to export jade.
Illegal mining is a common incident in the area. Given the poor conditions that people live, exporting jade is one solution that could provide them with better opportunities. However, illegal mining comes with a cost. Miners do not comply with safety regulations and catastrophic ground failures often occur. "Searching for precious stones is traditionally the only job for the people in this area. They (locals) have no other choice of livelihood. They will mine by any means whether they have an official permit or not. Although the mudslides keep happening, many organizations, including armed groups, involved in jade mining are saying the situation here is good. So it's difficult for the outside world to know the real situation here," Shwe Thein, a local, explained.
Click the videos below to watch the moment that the landslide struck the mine caught on camera.