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The GEF and Mercury: The Challenge

By Ibrahima Sow, GEF Climate & Chemicals Team

Threats to human health caused by mercury almost always result from pollution generated by humans. In addressing these threats, both environmental organizations and the private sector recognize that there are cost-effective alternatives to the use of mercury that do not pose health threats. Reducing the use of mercury is thus the main thrust of efforts to control this toxic element. This article presents a survey of the challenge posed by mercury pollution, the main sources of that pollution, and the joint international efforts to take on this problem.

Mercury, sometimes known as quicksilver, is the only metal that exists in liquid form at room temperature. This element occurs naturally in the environment but is rarely found in pure form. Rather, it generally occurs in compounds and inorganic salts. Mercury is a neurotoxic heavy metal which is released into the environment from a wide range of industrial and smaller-scale production sectors. These include a variety of products (thermostats, thermometers, blood pressure gauges, and other measuring devices; batteries; switches, relays and other electronic equipment; fluorescent lamps; and dental amalgam), industrial processes (including certain processes for chlorine, caustic soda, and vinyl chloride monomer production) and from artisanal and small-scale gold mining activities.

A number of other sources also contribute to the release of mercury into the environment. The largest man-made source of mercury emissions into the atmosphere comes from fossil fuel combustion for power and heating. Other sources include industrial metals production, cement production, and waste incineration. For many products and processes, cost-effective alternatives to mercury exist. Reducing mercury use is the most direct way to reduce mercury exposures and releases to the environment.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme's 2008 "Report on current supply and demand for mercury, including projections considering the phase-out of primary mercury mining," global mercury use in 2005 reached approximately 3,760 metric tons (figure 1). A significant portion of mercury pollution, whatever the source, winds up in the atmosphere where it can migrate across regions and even continents, with some eventually settling back to earth. According to the UNEP "Global Atmospheric Mercury Assessment: Sources, Emissions and Transport, December 2008," 1,930 metric tons (figure 2) of mercury were emitted to the atmosphere from human sources in 2005. It should be noted that global use and emissions inventory data are incomplete and these figures are averages within a range of uncertainty. Natural sources and re-emissions of historical releases of mercury also add to the "global pool" of mercury in the atmosphere. Direct releases of mercury to land and water bodies are not well quantified on a global basis.

Once released, mercury, like persistent organic pollutants (POPs), is sustained in the environment where it circulates between air, water, sediments, soil and living things in various forms. Atmospheric mercury can be transported long distances, incorporated by microorganisms and thus concentrated up the food chain.

While populations which rely heavily on certain types of fish for protein are particularly at risk for mercury exposure, many communities throughout the world are exposed to elemental mercury and mercury vapors at levels which pose significant health risks. Pregnant women, developing fetuses, and young children are particularly vulnerable to mercury. Exposure can cause neurological and developmental problems in children. Adults are at risk for a range of health effects, including kidney, heart, and respiratory problems, tremors, skin rashes, vision or hearing problems, headaches, weakness, memory problems, and emotional changes. Mercury's adverse effects can be slow-acting and subtle, or rapid and acute, depending on exposure and risk factors.

The Minamata disease, a form of severe methylmercury poisoning identified in 1956, was a massive pollution problem afflicting Japan. Effluents containing methylmercury compounds were released from an acetaldehyde plant into Minamata Bay and subsequently into the Minamata River and the Shirami Sea. The methylmercury pollution concentrates in the shellfish and fish that make up an important part of the local diet. More than 200,000 people were exposed to the contamination , leading to chronic poisoning in residents of the coastal areas of Kumamoto and adjoining Kagoshima prefectures. Symptoms of Minamata disease include numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision and damage to hearing and speech. Acute cases can include severe sensory disturbance, convulsions and even death. 

The global efforts to address mercury contamination

Following the 2002 global mercury assessment published by UNEP and the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC), governments recognized that mercury is a chemical of global concern due to its long-range atmospheric transport, its persistence in the environment, its ability to bio accumulate in ecosystems, and its significant effects on human health and the environment. Within this context, the UNEP Governing Council at its 24th session (decision GC 24/3) established an ad hoc Open ended working group (OEWG) on mercury to set up elements for a comprehensive mercury framework, within two options: developing a legally binding instrument or adopting voluntary measures for mercury.

The OEWG agreed to support a legally binding instrument and proposed the establishment of an Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee (INC) to develop a comprehensive and suitable approach to mercury, including principles underpinning the instrument. INC was also charged with developing provisions to specify the objectives of the convention, namely, to reduce the supply of mercury, reduce atmospheric emissions, address remediation of contaminated sites, and address financial and technical assistance required. This proposal was adopted in February 2009 by the UNEP Governing Council at its 25th Session (decision GC 25/).

The INC met three times, first in Stockholm in June 2010, then in Tokyo in January 2011, and most recently in Nairobi in November 2011 to discuss the provisions of the legally binding instrument. This process will continue until 2013 when the instrument is expected to be adopted as the Minamata Convention.

The debate related to the Financial Mechanism of the future mercury convention commenced at INC-2 in Japan and continued in Nairobi. The guiding principles of this discussion are two-fold:

  1. "Strong linkages exist between the provision of financial and technical assistance and achieving compliance with a mercury instrument" and
  2. "the ability of developing countries and countries with economies in transition to implement some legal obligations effectively under this Convention will depend on the availability of capacity-building and technical and adequate financial assistance."

As of now, specific models for a Financial Mechanism being considered by the negotiators include mainly (i) the Global Environment Facility, (ii) a standalone mechanism (new) created along the lines of the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol.

During the negotiations, it appeared that some countries favor a mechanism similar to the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, noting its successful track record. Many others advocate entrusting the Global Environment Facility as the principal financial mechanism for mercury, noting the GEF's considerable expertise and its ability to play an active role in related issues, and pointing to the importance of avoiding bureaucratic duplication.

For another group of countries, it is important to look at all possible sources of financing, including other multilateral institutions and programs, bilateral initiatives, the private sector, and a broader set of donor countries. A number emphasized that funding levels must be feasible for donor countries.

The discussion on the form of the instrument's financial mechanism would undoubtedly continue throughout the INC process and would not be finalized before the last INC (January 2013) or even at the Diplomatic Conference in Minamata, Japan, in fall or winter 2013.

The GEF and mercury

The involvement of the GEF in addressing global contaminants dates back to 1995 when the GEF Council, recognized the global significance of problems posed by persistent toxic substances (PTS), which include mercury, heavy metals and organo-metallic compounds. That year the Council approved actions aimed at "limiting the releases of contaminants causing priority concerns" in the international waters focal area. Specific reference to Mercury appeared in the Contaminant Based Operational Program (#10). The program scope of OP10 focused on specific contaminants rather than a specific water-body.

Recognizing that the global chemicals management agenda has expanded in scope since the GEF 4 funding cycle (2006-2010), the GEF has taken a significant step toward addressing global mercury pollution. In the 5th Replenishment the GEF Council approved an allocation of $20 million for projects to complement and advance negotiations on a global, legally-binding mercury instrument. A strategy for Mercury was elaborated and approved by the GEF Council at its 39th session. The strategy calls for a facilitative approach to address key issue areas and knowledge gaps through projects which can be deployed quickly and show results within the INC process timeframe. GEF 5 resources for mercury projects are intended to support assessment and pilot activities that will advance the development of the global mercury instrument and improve countries' abilities to implement its provisions when the instrument enters into force.

The GEF is supporting project proposals, consistent with the strategy, in the following issue areas:

  • Reducing Mercury Use in Products
  • Reducing Mercury Use in Industrial Processes
  • Reducing Mercury Use and Exposures in Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining
  • Enhancing Capacity for Mercury Storage
  • Reducing Atmospheric Emissions of Mercury
  • Improved Data and Scientific Information at the National Level
  • Enhancing Capacity to Address Waste and Contaminated Sites.

The GEF CEO has approved three projects, two for the implementation of integrated measures for minimizing mercury releases from artisanal gold mining in West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) and in Latin America and the Caribbean (Peru and Ecuador) and the third for the reduction of mercury emissions in zinc smelting operations in China, one of the largest mercury emissions sources in China Assistance in this area for developing countries and countries with economies in transition will be pursed throughout the INC process to cover other countries and regions.

Important advances in mercury emission reduction were made in GEF 4 through a GEF/UNDP multi-country medical waste project to control unintentional releases of POPs (dioxins and furans). The project successfully added a mercury component to take mercury out of selected medical waste streams and allowed the replacement of mercury containing devices with mercury-free ones.
The GEF's response to the challenge posed by the increasing contamination of mercury involves assisting developing countries and countries with economies in transition. The aim is to implement provisions under the future mercury convention that will adhere to the basic principles set forth in the GEF Instrument and Operational Strategy, which establishes "Operational Principles" for the development and implementation of GEF-eligible projects.

The author is the GEF Chemicals Cluster Coordinator. 


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