A common environmental buzzword,” Water is Life” has been used to describe how essential water is to the sustenance of life. It is also common knowledge that mining is a major contributor to water and environmental pollution. Mining operations destroy both surface and ground water. Among the human activities that threatens water, mining is counted as most common casualty of water.[1]

According to the European Environmental Bureau (2000) problems related to mining waste may be rated as second only to global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion in terms of ecological risk. The release to the environment of mining waste can result in profound, generally irreversible destruction of ecosystems”.  In many cases, the polluted sites may never be fully restored, for pollution is so persistent that there is no available remedy (EEB, 2000)[2]. One major polluter of water in mining areas is mine waste generation and management.

Surface mining has many facets of water pollution. Mining activities such as processing of ore depend on heavy use of water in addition to the problem of dewatering which depletes ground water. In the end, some effluents from the processed ore which contains cyanide and heavy metals, spill into the environment and Community Rivers in the form of cyanide spillages or the seepage of pollutants into the environment.

Sometimes, cyanide spillages occur at the blind side of regulators.  Ghana has recorded a good number of cyanide spillages by multinational mining companies. The increasing incidence of Cyanide spillages which were hitherto uncommon with underground mining has become associated with the surface mining operations and the information below represent some of the incidences of cyanide spillages in the country;

  • Cyanide spillage at the Obenemase mine which contaminated the Owerri River.
  • The cyanide spillage of Billington Bogoso Gold in 1991
  • An accident involving a truck conveying sodium cyanide to Billington Bogoso Gold at Samahu in 1994 causing cyanide to spill into the environment causing the death of frogs in a nearby wetland
  • Cyanide spillage of Teberebie Goldfields on 18th June 1996 causing cyanide solution into river Angonaben stream, a main tributary of the Bonsa River.
  • The cyanide spillage of Ashanti Goldfields Company, Obuasi mine which occurred in 1999 and affected many communities. The spillage affected two major rivers, Supu and Fina and other small rivers in the Obuasi area. Some communities were forced to relocate to new settlements.
  • Cyanide spillage of Goldfields Ghana Limited (GGL) on October 16th, 2001 which polluted river Asuman.
  • Cyanide spillage of Satellite Goldfields Limited into wetlands at Akyempim on 28th October 2001.
  • The cyanide spillage of Goldfields Ghana Limited (GGL) which occurred on 18th May 2003. GGL claimed that the spillage was contained and did not spill into the environment.
  • The cyanide spillage of Bogoso Gold Limited (BGL), a Canadian Company, which occurred on Saturday 23rd October 2004. The spillage was from the new tailings dam of Manse. The affected rivers flow into the big river Ankobra. The cyanide spillage affected Dumase town, and other communities like Goloto, Juaben, Kokofu, Egyabroni
  • Newmont Ghana Gold Limited (NGGL) Ahafo mine spilled cyanide from its processing plant at Kenyase into river Asunua which flows into river Subri. The spillage was identified on the dawn of Saturday 10th October 2009 by community people when they found many dead fishes floating on their river. They then reported the incident to officials of the company immediately.
  • Handling of mine waste is a major problem of mining operations and rock waste facilities become sources of effluent and pollutant generation that seep into water bodies. Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) describes how the excavation of rocks that contain sulphides when exposed to weather conditions of water and oxygen ends up producing sulphuric acids which are carried by rainwater and surface drainage to nearby streams and rivers. Through this, acidic rivers and water bodies polluted by heavy metals enter the food chain through the fishes and other aquatic life that absorb the heavy metals as well as the long term ingestion of the acidic water by host mining communities. These have serious health implications on host communities and the society.The Third Gold Rush (Third Jungle Boom)Ghana is currently experiencing a third gold rush which is sometimes described as the third jungle boom which started in the early 1980s to date. The gold rushes are marked by foreign investment and control of gold mining though artisanal mining by indigenous people which predates the period of contact with foreigners who landed on our shores to trade in gold and slaves was carried out as an off season economic activity on marginal lands by people who were mainly farmers.

    The indigenous methods of gold mining used then have been described as superior because of the zero usage of chemicals and the absence of heavy machinery. Rivers and sacred sites were adequately protected through religious beliefs and the conflict between mining and other land use systems was very minimal because the Farmer-Miners did not want their off-season mining activities on marginal lands to destroy their capacity to sustain their farming activities.

    The third gold rush has been different in terms of technological change from mainly underground mining to surface mining in addition to the use of heap leach method of gold extraction by using cyanide and reliance on heavy machinery for excavation. The surface mining operations create a major land use conflict between farming and mining where large tracts of fertile farmlands are ceded to mining companies for surface mining operations. For example, AngloGold Ashanti (Obuasi Mine) control almost 400km2 land as its concession. This leads to displacement of community people who are paid low compensations that do not restore their livelihoods leading to the worsening of poverty in mining communities.

    Apart from the illegal mining operations, it is estimated that close to 70,000 landlords have been displaced by multinational mining companies in the third gold rush.  With the loss of livelihood, some of the economically displaced people especially the youth who do not have the skills required for permanent employment in mining companies are compelled to undertake employment in mining companies on contract basis. The introduction of mining in farming communities has worsened the unemployment situation in mining communities and the hitherto farming communities are compelled to abandon farming to undertake mining activities, mainly ‘Galamsey’ mining, with its attendant environmental problems especially pollution of rivers.

    Water as a casualty of mining

    James Lyon describes water as “mining’s most common casualty” indicating that the decision to mine should be considered alongside the associated high price that the society has to pay in terms of water pollution. Sadly, section 17 of the Minerals and Mining Act, Act 703 of 2003 grants that a mineral right holder upon receiving requisite approvals or licences under the Water Resources Commission Act, 1996 (Act 552) “may for the purposes of or ancillary to the mineral operations, obtain, divert, impound, convey and use water from a river, stream, underground reservoir or watercourse within the land the subject of the mineral right”.

    This is a carte blanche for water pollution and destruction by mining operations of multinational mining companies. There is no provision in the Minerals and Mining Act to protect water bodies and to hold the mining companies to strong environmental standards based on the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP). Quite disappointingly, companies that violate the minerals and mining act are required to pay a fine of not more than the cedi equivalent of $US 5,000 and the law permits that if a defaulting company is unable to pay the penalty, it must be treated as a civil debt owed to the state (Section 108 and 109 of Minerals and Mining Act, Act 703, 2006).

    The penalty as provided in the Minerals and Mining Act, Act 703, 2006 does not prescribe strong provisions to hold mining companies to clean up cost when a mining company could pay about US$ 100 Million as clean-up cost for cyanide spillages in countries with strong environmental laws . It was only a strong advocacy by NGOs such as Wacam that exposed the cyanide spill by Newmont Ahafo Mine in 2009 and compelled government to impose a fine of almost US$ 5 million on the company. Indeed, Newmont argued that the $US 5 million fine imposed on the company had no legal basis.

    As a nation, we have permitted official mining lease for mining companies like Newmont Akyem mine to mine the Ajenua Bepo Forest reserve when we know that the Ajenua forest reserve protects about 12 rivers including Afosu River and other rivers such as Yaayaa, Alotosu, Adenkyem, Aboabo, Adentem, Akrawasu among others. The mining operations of Newmont Akyem mine has sounded the death knell to these rivers that were of importance to the people in the area. A research commissioned by Newmont before commencing surface mining operations in the Ajenua Bepo forest reserve showed that the forest reserve contains ten plant species which are new to science[1]. It amounts to lawlessness by the state to strip the forest reserves of its legal protection and permit surface mining operations in such important national heritage sites which protect our water bodies and biodiversity.

    Water pollution has become a systemic human rights violation in Ghana. According to the report of CHRAJ (2008)[2], 22 out of 28 mining communities had polluted rivers. Again in 2009, Wacam commissioned Centre for Environmental Impact Analysis (CEIA) which listed 250 Rivers and water forms in the Tarkwa and Obuasi areas. The baseline study revealed that out of the 156 streams/rivers in Obuasi mining area, 145 are polluted by the operations of mining companies and galamsey operators.

    Similarly, all the 114 rivers/streams in the Tarkwa mining area are polluted by mining companies and galamsey operators. Most of the alternate sources of water provided for residents of mining communities by mining companies are not of good quality[1]. The report confirmed that the rivers and water forms are polluted with elevated levels of heavy metals and the continuous ingestion of these polluted rivers has serious health implication. Further research by CEIA based on the results of 2009 of Wacam to establish the effects associated with ingesting contaminated water bodies on human health of residents of mining communities in Tarkwa and Prestea areas gave a startling result which in summary indicates that eight out of every hundred adults in the Tarkwa area were prone to cancers[2].

    Though Wacam has been sounding the alarm of the connection between mining and water pollution about two decades ago, it is only recently when the problem has reached catastrophic proportions that there is public outcry on the issue. Probably we looked at the short term economic benefits of mining and overlooked the long-term social, economic and environmental costs of mining.

    The blame game between the so-called legal and illegal (Galamsey) on water pollution rages on. The simple truth is that both legal and illegal mining operations have contributed to the pollution of our river bodies. Indeed, artisanal mining especially “Galamsey” has seen tremendous change in the period of the third gold rush.

    Artisanal mining which used to be a pick axe and shovel activity with the use of mercury for gold extraction on a lower scale has become a medium to large scale mining operations based on heavy machinery and the use of the heap leach method which goes with the use of cyanide has become the standard practice for Galamsey operators. The lessons on the use of cyanide for processing of gold and heavy machinery for excavation have been learnt by artisanal miners from the operations of surface mines by multinational mining companies.

    The Level of displacement of indigenous people from their lands and the payment of low compensation by mining companies have served as push factors for many agrarian based communities especially the youth into illegal mining operations.

    In effect, the scale of destruction of water bodies caused by Galamsey operations have been born out of our liberal laws to attract mining investment and our failure to regulate the mining companies.


    The extensive damage to our river bodies alone in the third gold rush is an indicator of our inability to compute the cost of mining which outweighs the benefits gained from mining. It is time to have a comprehensive look at our mining sector laws and policies. It would be helpful to state that the World Bank advised the country to increase dependence on our minerals for development and poverty alleviation and the same World Bank made the following statement in 2005:

    “It is unclear what gold mining’s true benefits are to Ghana. Large scale mining by foreign companies has high import content and produces only modest amounts of net foreign exchange for Ghana after accounting for all its outflows. Similarly, its corporate tax payments are low due to various fiscal incentives necessary to attract and retain foreign investors. Employment creation is also modest given the highly capital intensive nature of modern surface mining techniques. Local communities affected by large scale mining have seen little benefits to date in the form of improved infrastructure or services provision because much of the rents from mining are used to finance recurrent, not capital expenditure. A broader cost-benefit analysis of large-scale mining that factors in social and environmental costs and includes consultations with the affected communities needs to be undertaken before granting future production licences.[1]

    As a way forward, Ghana should place a moratorium on the granting of mining lease to mining companies for the country to undertake a cost-benefit analysis to consider the full cost of mining including social, environmental and economic costs of mining as against the benefits. According to a report of Ministry of Finance (2015), the contribution of mining to GDP in 2014 was 0.8%[2].

    Illegal mining constitutes a crime as well as a social problem and the fight against it should be a mix of strategies. Undoubtedly, there is a powerful network of politicians, traditional rulers, security agencies, business people that serve as a strong backbone for illegal mining operations. It takes a strong political will to deal with the crime associated with the illegal mining activities. The legal solution should be combined with alternative livelihood and skill development programmes that would equip the host communities that had lost their lands to mining with incomes that could restore livelihoods. The state should be prepared to make substantial investment in the alternative livelihood programme which can attract and sustain community people that had been exposed to the cash economy of Galamsey.

    Active participation of communities where Galamsey operations are prevalent is important in ensuring the sustainability and ownership of solutions to the Galamsey problem. Government must invest in environmental education in the country especially among the youth and students in mining communities in order to gain the support of community people in all programmes to address the Galamsey problem. The entry of illegal immigrants especially Chinese into the mining communities to carry out illegal mining is an indictment on the Immigration Service.