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Ghana's water problem

Maxwell Suuk / cmMarch 22, 2016

As the world marks the UN's World Water Day, residents in northern Ghana are struggling to access fresh water. Excessive sand mining is affecting the water levels in rivers and lakes.

Men mining river sand and loading it on to a truck.
Image: DW/M. Suuk

It is morning in Tamale and Nafisah Alhassan, a housewife, turns on her tap to fill her water container. But only a few drops flow in. A few years back, this was not the case. "These days it is not easy to get water in the area where I live because most of our taps don't provide running water regularly," Alhassan said. "We have to travel a very long distance to get only one jerrican of water which I come to use with my children, I don't find it very easy."

The mother of three is not the only one struggling in northern Ghana. Recently, more and more residents are spending valuable time looking for potable water. This is because the region's main source of water, the Nawuni River, is threatened by several human activities such as sand mining.

At the river banks located northeast of Tamale, a group of men are shoveling river sand into a tipper truck. This type of sand is lucrative for the construction industry. Abukari Iddrisu has been mining sand for almost a decade. In an interview with DW, he outlined the benefits of his work.

"Since I started mining sand, I am able to take care of my family's needs. The school fees, my wife and everything," Idrissu said. "Last year, I didn't get anything from my farm, but because of the sand mining, we survived."

A single man paddles his canoe on a milky brown river
Chemicals are increasingly used to treat the water - a threat for local fishermenImage: DW/M. Suuk

Effects of river sand mining

Nii Abbey, who works with the Ghana Water Company in Tamale, told DW the river was losing its water holding capacity. "As a result of the sand mining, the river bed has degraded to the depth of excavation," Abbey said. He added that the water table within the enclave had lowered near the river bed, making the channel unstable.

According to Ghana's Water Research Institute, sand mining affects fresh water bodies. Water companies prohibit the mining of sand in water bodies like rivers but sand miners in northern Ghana complain that it is an attempt to deny them their right to make a living.

"If only they will get us work, we will stop mining the sand here," one sand miner told DW. Another miner said he didn't think it was illegal. "What do they expect us to live on? There are no jobs here. Do they want us to migrate somewhere? They are not fair to us," another one added in the local language.

People wearing colorful clothes get out of a canoe as it reaches the river bank
Local communities rely on the river for transportationImage: DW/M. Suuk

'Water is life'

In Dungu village, Moses Akolgo ties a container to his motorbike before he heads out in search of water. For years now, this village has been facing water shortages. Akolgo is concerned that the river is being threatened. "If the river is losing its water definitely one day you will go and there will not be water to drink," a frustrated Akolgo said.

"And if there is no water, you can't live. Water is life." According to Akolgo, one can easily survive without electricity so long as there is water. "I don't think you will have a problem, but for water it is very important," he added.

Changing world?

Afrika Ghana Welt Wasser Tag
Sand miner Baba Fuseini relies on sand mining for his livelihoodImage: DW/M. Suuk

However, Akolgo's view differed from that of Baba Fuseini, a sand miner. For him, other factors were to blame. "It is not true. How can it [sand mining] affect the river? If the river is drying up, it is not because we are mining sand. It is because the world is changing. The sand is there going to waste, and we have to collect it."

Apart from sand mining, residents living along the river banks fish and cultivate crops near the river. Others use it for transportation. For Nii Abbey, all of these activities are adding to the depletion of the water and also increasing the amount of pollution in the water.

"It is costing us so much in terms of treatment, sometimes it even goes beyond our capabilities in a sense that no amount of chemicals you try to use in the treatment wil get it as it was before when these activities were not happening on the river."