Is gold panning poisoning fish in Burkina Faso’s Black Volta river?
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On July 7, a day after torrential rains, dead fish began to wash up on the banks of the Black Volta, Burkina Faso's longest river. Residents of the river's rural communities, such as Poura and Siby, reported finding several tonnes of fish carcasses on the river banks. They also said that some cattle had been poisoned. Local authorities say that the river is polluted due to local gold panning, but the country’s ministry for water and sanitation says that there are no chemicals in the water.
The Black Volta River is about 1,352 km long and flows through Burkina Faso down to Ghana, cutting through a number of provinces, including the province of Balé. It’s the longest river in the country. On Wednesday, July 7, fishermen in Balé province pulled up their nets to find only dead fish.
'Not 30 seconds would go by without another dead fish floating by'
In the town of Poura, a journalist at a local radio station, who asked to remain anonymous, was tipped off about the dead fish washing up on the banks of the river. He explains:
When we got there, we noticed the dead fish floating on the water. Not 30 seconds would go by without another dead fish floating by. All of the fish that the fishermen found were already in a state of decomposition.
The river was polluted around the area of Siby, and the current carried the poisoned fish down to Poura. But we still don’t know what really caused it.
To ensure that residents weren’t poisoned, local authorities immediately seized all fish that were for sale in the area.
'The pollution is due to the intensive gold panning activity in the area in total disrespect of environmental regulations'
In the area of Siby, fish weren’t the only species to be affected by the pollution. Cattle that went down to graze or drink near the river also were also found dead.
Issifou Ganou, the local mayor and member of the governing political party People’s Movement for Progress, said that it was a disaster:
It’s the first time we’ve seen so many fish die in the river. It was first noticed the day after heavy rains in the night of Sunday, July 4.
We recorded traces of chemicals along the railway tracks that cross over the river. The grass around turned yellow, and the cattle that grazed over this area died.
Without precise analysis, we can’t say exactly what kind of product was spilled here.
The first thing we did is incinerate the dead bodies of the cattle and bury the dead fish. We’ve asked residents to be careful and to temporarily avoid fishing or collecting water from the river, until the situation gets back to normal. This measure could last up to a month.
However, we think that the pollution is due to intensive gold panning activity that has been going on all along the river, in total disrespect of environmental regulations. Gold miners use toxic chemicals like mercury and cyanide to extract gold. They drill a bit everywhere, and then empty the toxic mud into the river. The fish could have been poisoned by toxic chemicals that were disposed of on the river banks.
Burkina Faso is one of the 10 largest gold producers in Africa, producing 50 tonnes total every year. Gold mining and panning take place across the country and are a major contributor to the country’s GDP. According to a 2018 OECD report, the 500-700 small-scale gold panning sites in the country produce around 9.5 tonnes of gold a year.
Article 77 of the Burkinabe mining code formally bans using "explosives and dangerous chemical substances, in particular cyanide and mercury, in artisanal gold mining".
No cyanide pollution, but very cloudy water, according to government ministry
Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Water Resources declared in a press release, also published on their Facebook page, that after analysing water samples, fish in the Black Volta did not die of cyanide pollution or pesticides, but because the water became more agitated. That stirred up suspended particles in the water, making it murkier.
They explained that the turbidity of the water increased from “100 UTN (a unit to measure turbidity) to practically 2000. This confirms that the water was extremely agitated and some fish can die in these conditions because of respiratory problems” linked to a lack of oxygen.
The ministry also explained that the “increase in turbidity is a phenomenon that occurs every year on certain stretches of the Black Volta because of cultural practices that involve agitating soil at the beginning of the rainy season. The first rains then carry this loosened soil into waterways that are near agricultural areas”.
'The water’s turbidity could also be due to gold panning'
These arguments do little to convince Issifou Ganou. His community has one of the largest gold panning sites in Balé province and almost 10,000 workers, according to the Burkina Information Agency.
I’m not going to contest their conclusions. But I’m talking about what we’ve seen on the ground. It’s their right to say that the water is murky. But the water’s turbidity could also be due to gold panning because mud is then dumped in the water by the miners, and it’s toxic. That’s the danger.
We’re not against gold mining, which is a sector that provides jobs. But it has to be done while respecting the environment. It has to be regulated. If not, all of our groundwater, at this rate, will be totally polluted, and that will end up contaminating our drilling sites and our wells.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted Idrissa Sanou, the head of environmental issues in the province, but he made no comment about the link between gold panning in the region and pollution in the river.