The 'gold rush' polluting Ivory Coast's drinking water

People panning for gold on the Bia River. Photo sent by our Observer.
People panning for gold on the Bia River. Photo sent by our Observer.

The Bia River is a vital source of water for the residents of Bianouan in eastern Ivory Coast. They drink the river water, and they bathe, fish and wash their clothes in it. But all that changed about a month ago, when the river turned a murky brown. Our Observers suspect that illegal gold panning is behind the contamination.

People in Bianouan can no longer use the river for drinking or washing, because it is so polluted, and fishing has come to a standstill. Ivory Coast’s semi-public water distribution company, SODECI (Société de distribution d’eau de Côte d’Ivoire), iis usually responsible for cleaning the river water for drinking. But SODECI has shut down the water treatment plant that they installed in the area only last August. At the beginning of March, SODECI commissioned several laboratories to iinvestigate pollution in the Bia River. In the meantime, to make up for the lack of drinking water, Ivory Coast's national water bureau has started sending tankers of drinking water to the area on a daily basis.

Residents of Bianouan queue up to collect water. Photo sent by our Observer.

'Washing with this water makes us itch'

Jérome Bassolé lives in Bianouan. He took several photos showing gold diggers panning upstream from his town. He blames them for the river’s contamination.

Bianouan is right on Ivory Coast’s border with Ghana. The source of the Bia River is across the border, in Ghana. And that’s where the problem is coming from. Dozens of people are panning for gold near a village called Dadieso in Ghana. I think that’s the source of the pollution: what products are they using to extract the gold? What effect is the gold panning having on water quality? We hope that SODECI's analysis of the water will tell us more.

The gold-panners' site on the Bia River. Photo sent by our Observer.

'We sometimes notice oil slicks on the water’s surface'

What is certain is that we’re dealing with high levels of contamination. We’re used to fishing, bathing, and washing our clothes in this river. But now it’s murky and brown. It’s almost been three months since the water changed colour. At first we thought it might be a consequence of drought. But the colour is far too strange. What’s more, we sometimes notice oil slicks on the water’s surface.

SODECI, located only a few kilometres away from the gold diggers, has suspended operations. 

'The tanker can’t meet everyone’s needs'

SODECI’s Bianouan plant is located only a few kilometres away from the gold diggers. It is not currently operating. SODECI hasn’t distributed clean water since February. So we have to wait for the tankers sent out by the water bureau. The problem is that the tanker can’t meet everyone’s needs. We need water. The village’s normal activities have completely stopped: we can’t fish, our livestock can’t go drink there anymore.

My brother used the river water to brush his teeth. He said there was a chemical reaction with the toothpaste. And when we wash ourselves using the water, it itches.

The river has taken on a brownish colour. Photo sent by our Observer.

SODECI confirmed to FRANCE 24 that water analyses were being carried out following pollution caused by gold-panning. As part of their rudimentary methods, people are using mercury to separate the gold from other elements such as sand, silt, clay and gravel.

Acting with impunity?

Bianouan’s deputy prefect told FRANCE 24 that local authorities are doing all they can to get a handle on the situation. “We haven’t abandoned the local people,” he said. He adds that he’s regularly on the ground to make sure that the tankers pass through the area “twice daily to distribute enough water to the town’s 13,000 residents”.

Video sent by our Observer.

But other questions remain, mainly why the gold diggers were allowed to use the river without any consequences. Authorities on both sides of the border are pointing fingers at one another. Several Observers who live along this stretch of river have relayed their concerns to FRANCE 24. Some blame Ghanaian landowners for giving gold diggers access to the river in return for money. Others say security forces are complicit. Last August, the village chief of Dadieso, on the Ghanaian side of the border, had already sounded the alarm. He accused local police of colluding with gold diggers.

A gold rush in Ivory Coast and Ghana

The recent gold rush in Ivory Coast is partly triggered by a sharp drop in the price of cocoa, the country’s biggest export. Officials say that in 2015 gold production rose by 15 percent compared with the previous year, with 23.5 tons of gold extracted. But the huge potential in the gold market is also creating a boom in clandestine gold panning. Last July, the government’s spokesperson announced the closure of 429 illegal gold-panning sites across the country.

Gold exports account for around 11 percent of GDP in Ghana, one of the poorest countries on the planet. Human Rights Watch says that around one third of the 119 tons of gold extracted in 2013 came from improvised mines. In June 2015, the NGO also pointed out that many children were among the gold diggers, who are nicknamed “galampsey”, a contraction of “gather them and sell”.