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Opinions of Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

Water, water everywhere but only mud to drink

Picture of galamsey activities Picture of galamsey activities

The increase in the price of gold has boosted the demand for gold from Ghana by Chinese traders, which has, in turn, worsened illegal artisanal gold-mining (locally called galamsey) in the rivers of Ghana. And that is leading to massive destruction of Ghana's water-bodies. The Ghanaian authorities seem to be unconcerned. Before long, unless something drastic is done, people will lack clean water for domesticx and industrial use.

I am particulalry affected by these developments because in 1951-54, when I was attending the Government Middle School at Kyebi, in the Eastern Region, my task each morning was to walk to the River Birem, where I would bathe and bring some water home.
I wasn't the only one - scores of my schoolmates from Kyebi Government School and the rival State Primary School, congregated on the Birem's banks each morning, teasing one another and swapping stories.

It never occurred to me then that River Birem could ever be destroyed or even come near destructtion. In one of those apostrophes that pay tribute to the poetry inherent their culture, the people called her ”Asuo 'Benaa” (The Tuesday-born Female River) and endowed her with all the attributes of a human being. Examples: she was not to be visited on Tuesdays, because she would be resting from the long journey she had made from her source in the Atewa Range. She would use her rest-day to recharge her batteries and recover from the pollution that fishing and farming too close to her banks had wrought on her waters. All for the benefit of the people, who could justt drink its water as it was, unputified with imported chemicals.

It remained drinkable even during the rainy season, though she turned muddy-brown. That was to warn everyone that she was “angry”. Where once people could tread in her, she would now be threatening their foothold with sharp currents. And her banks became soggy and slippery. So occasionally one heard that, “Birem has taken someone.”
But because all this was known to the people, Birem generally never caused much harm. I drank her water for three solid years, and all that time, no water-borne diseases ever affected anyone that I heard about. Yet such diseases abounded elsewhere – I myself once caught bilharzia while I was attending a six-week course at the Atibie Emergency Teacher Training College, near Mpraeso. I had never heard of such a disease, as I went my merry way bathing in a river not too far from the College, washing my clothes in it and fetching water home to drink.

My shock at discovering at Atibie that I was urinating blood was considerable. I was lucky I wasn't in a sexual relationship because I would have concluded, in my ignorance, that my partner had infected me with a sexually-transmitted disease! One visit to the hospital confirmed it was bilharzia, a disease caused by a worm that is ejected into the water by a water-snail. The worm lodges in the human liver and blood in the urine is the signal that it has begun to attack one's liver. Fortunately, a single injection was all that was needed to cure the disease in my case.

An experience like that never leaves one, and I have therefore been extremely saddened on reading that galamsey has so threatened the Birem that even though there is a water-pumping and treatment plant at Kyebi, the water that is pumped into the plant is so muddy that it can no longer be treated by the plant. The plant has therefore been shut down.

What will the people do, one asks. Water provided by tanker will probably be sold to them. What happens if one hasn't got money?

Even free supplies of water could create tension, for some people hate to queue up in an orderly manner!

Other massive Rivers such as the Ankobra, Offin, Oti and Pra are similarly under attack. Even Tanoh, whose purity has been acknowledged by ancient Asante fontomfrom drums (which always describe that River as”Tanoh kronkron” [Pure or Holy Tanoh] whenever its name comes up) has been gutted by galamsey miners).

In effect, what Ghana is witnessing today must be one of the worst, deliberately concerted assaults on a people's water-bodies ever experienced by humankind. There have been droughts; there have been floods; yes -- both of which can contaminate water and make it unsafe to drink. But both are natural phenomena which no-one can do anything about.

Ghana's water catastrophe, on the other hand, is entirely man-made. It is being undertaken in search of gold, a metal which nurtures greed in gigantic proportions. Gold's propensity to create life-threatening tragedies was sign-posted long ago by Aesop's cautionary tale abiut King Midas (who died of starvation because he had asked for the power to turn everything he touched into gold – without realising that that would includ the food he needed to eat in order to continue to live!)

So incredible is the situation created in my country by galamsey that one person on an Internet forum wrote: “I am against the death penalty but this is clearly a genocide in the making and I would introduce the death penalty for anyone caught destroying our water-bodies through galamsey.”

I have said before that in China if the Government discovered anti-social behaviour in the proportions Ghanaians are witnessing from galamsey, it would summarily execute the perpetrators. China is in a position at least to prevent Chinese-manufactured changfangs (known to Ghanaians as toh-toh-toh machines, which are used for dredging and gold-refining in rivers) from being exported to Ghana. (Yes, the Government of Ghana could stop their importation, but won't do so, for reasons best known to itself. My guess is that it does not have the true interest of its own people at heart).

China can also easily investigate and establish what businesses its nationals in Ghana are carrying out, and order those engaged in galamsey to cease and return home forthwith, or face severe puishment, including permanent exile. (Again prevention of criminal activity by foreigners is a duty which the Ghana Government ought to undertake but which it seems too unpatriotic to contemplate.)

It is a sad day for me as a Ghanaian, to put on China's shoulders, responsibilities that devolve wholly on my own government. But China's politicians are perfectly capable of analysing and understanding exactly what is going on in Ghana. They know from their own history, for instance, that unconcerned and greedy Chinese collaborators teamed up with Westerners to devastate the people of China during the soul-destroying Opium War tears when China was mockingly called 'The Sick Man of Asia' by the very people who were ruthlessly exploiting its people's weaknesses for gain.

Ghana needs the help of an unusual nature. I call on China once again to have no qualms about putting in its oar to save Ghana's threatened water-bodies. Before it is too late.

* Cameron Duodu is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and author.