Mining is the extraction (removal) of minerals and metals from the Earth, e.g manganese, gold, copper, tin, etc. For decades, the extraction and subsequent processing of gold have provided thousands of indigenous people with employment and many continents with a wealth of economic development. Notwithstanding this, there are also many environmental problems and challenges associated with mining which stem from the contamination of, as well as competition for, surface and groundwater.

Water contamination from mining activities results from the discharge of effluents, which contain toxic chemicals such as cyanide and other organic chemicals used in the processing of mineral ores. These chemicals together may result in effluent with high acid levels which can either seep into underground water or flow into the environment (surface water bodies) posing danger to the nearby communities, especially those that depend on such water bodies for drinking and other domestic purposes. Another concern has to do with the leaching of heavy metal oxides (including lead and zinc oxides) which sometimes find their way into the environment and more specifically seep into surface and underground water bodies, posing danger to aquatic life as well as communities which depend on such resources.

In other words, Ghana continues to struggle to cope with the environmental impacts of rising uncontrolled incident of small-scale and illegal mining activities, with the legacy of unfilled holes or pits, abandoned artisanal mining sites, huge amounts of waste, wastewater, and dissipative losses. Although Ghana requires permits to mine on a small scale, it is estimated that about 70% of small-scale miners are unregistered and operate illegally popularly called galamsey. It is therefore not surprising that Ghana has the largest artisanal and small-scale mining in Africa (1,100,000) with estimated dependents of 4,400,000.

These miners in the past were described as “poor people,” individuals or small groups who depend upon mining for a living, who use rudimentary tools and techniques (e.g., picks, chisels, sluices, and pans) to exploit mineral deposits. This definition does not hold any longer in Ghana as the illegal mining is controlled by the rich who employ the use of sophisticated equipment resulting in modifying the landscapes and potentially having a long-term impact on communities and the natural resources due to their physical degrading nature, as well as the use of chemicals and other harmful substances.

The results of the activities of these desperate miners are there for all to see, especially in the area of water, as the various water bodies are being destroyed with impunity. Thus, the miners as their modus operandi, divert river path and mine on the river bed resulting in a high level of siltation that threatens the drying up of the various river bodies. The other problem is the introduction of high levels of suspended solids that are potential carriers of heavy metals into the river. In this case, the high level of suspended solids have resulted in the high cost of treatment in some water treatment plants and their eventual closure as well. Also, the gravels, mud, and rocks displaced during river dredging for the mineral have disrupted the natural flow of most of the rivers across the country.

Illegal mining may render GWCL with no water to treat

The Minister for Sanitation and Water Resource, Cecilia Abena Dapaah, has expressed grave concern over the polluted state of water bodies by galamsey activities. According to her, the situation, if not addressed immediately, may lead to the lack of raw water for Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL) to treat.

The Minister was visiting the Bonsa Water Treatment Plant in the Tarkwa Nsuaem Municipality of the Western Region on Tuesday to have first-hand knowledge of the current state of the facility, as part of her working visit across the country. Most river bodies such as Densu and Birim in the Eastern and Ankobra in the Western Region among many others across the country are living testimony of the atrocities being committed against the water bodies.

The Minister has therefore called on traditional leaders to partner with government to help clamp down on the activities of illegal mining in the country.

A nation in dilemma

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources of the Government of Ghana, a National Consultative Dialogue on Small Scale Mining was held from 14th to 15th April 2021 at the Accra International Conference Centre, pursuant to the vision of the President of the Republic, H.E. Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, to organize a national discourse to solicit diverse views so as to develop appropriate policy options for the small scale mining subsector.

The Dialogue agreed by consensus that dealing with galamsey is a national emergency which required urgent and concerted effort. Therefore, all political parties, all stakeholder groups, all individuals need to join the development and execution of this national, not parochial, agenda to rid the country of the long standing issue of illegal small scale mining and the need to implement measures in eradicating it out of society.

The Dialogue emphatically charged government to take steps to put in place systems that would rigidly apply the law, noting particularly the sanctions/penalties imposed by Act 995, to all those who infringe the law, irrespective of political colour or socio-economic status or class; indeed, the better placed in society and who ought to know better should have the most punitive of the penalties applied to them.

The Dialogue therefore resolved that the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources will take appropriate steps, legislative and/or executive action, as the case may be, to give effect to the set of measures arising from this Dialogue and approved by government.

As the World Earth Day is celebrated today with the theme “Restore Our Earth”, it is our hope that, the small part of the earth called Ghana will very soon be cracking the whip against these illegal miners to save the country from the dangerous couple of illegal mining and water pollution.

By Awudu Salami Sulemana Yoda

Citation: Albert Ebo Duncan, Department of Water and Sanitation, School of Physical Sciences, College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences, University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast, Ghana