Illegal mining in Ghana: The Negative Impact On WASH, Typhoid, And Other Infectious Diseases

The mining sector has historically been a major driver of economic growth, with many countries enhancing their economic stature by extracting natural resources through mining. However, this economic boom often overshadows the health implications of mining activities.

Ghana ranks among Africa’s top mineral producers. While large-scale mining companies typically secure permits for mineral extraction, smaller groups and individuals frequently engage in small-scale artisanal mining without the necessary permits, rendering their activities illegal. This unregulated mining adversely impacts the environment, including vital water sources, thereby endangering local community health.

Extensive data from sources such as the WHO and CDC link contaminated water and inadequate sanitation to the spread of diseases like typhoid, cholera, and rotavirus.

Impact of Mining on Health

In Ghana, artisanal gold mining, despite its illegal status, has become a lucrative endeavor. However, it severely harms the environment, leading to deforestation and the pollution of water, air, and soil with toxic chemicals. According to CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response, chemicals like mercury and cyanide, released through natural processes and industrial activities, pose significant threats to human health. Pollution of water bodies from illegal mining forces communities to seek alternative water sources, which are often contaminated with bacterial pathogens such as typhoid.

Heavy metal contamination in certain water sources has led to the shutdown of water treatment plants. When these plants cease operation, communities lose access to safe water, compelling them to resort to unimproved sources, thereby increasing the risk of typhoid and other waterborne diseases. The 2020 Ghana Rapid Health Situation Assessment Report reveals a high prevalence of typhoid and other diseases in mining communities.

Dr. David Ackah, Faculty of Competency-Base Training & Learning Institute of Project Management Professionals in an interview with First News said, “Toxic chemicals such as mercury that have long term health implications on communities for generations are released into these water bodies. The use of these heavy metals to pollute surface and underground water has severe health implications that would not manifest immediately but in the near future. Mercury dispensed through the activities of illegal miners in the form of mercury vapor and the pollution of surface and underground water are highly toxic to humans.”

Dr. Ackah disclosed, “The consumers of pipe-borne water may be consuming small amounts of mercury and unknown to the public, bits of it would accumulate and give negative effects in the not-too-distant future.”

Contaminated Water Increases Risk of Illness

Media reports highlight that some communities have access only to contaminated water, resulting in a surge in skin infections and waterborne diseases.

He reveled that,  “In the Shama District of Ghana’s Western region, comprising six communities with high illegal mining activity, diarrheal cases doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 in three years. It is likely that typhoid bacteria are also present in these unsafe water sources, increasing the typhoid burden.”

The challenge of diagnosing typhoid means that many may fall ill without receiving accurate diagnoses or treatment. Communities with increased mining activity often lack health centers capable of appropriately diagnosing and treating illnesses, posing a significant risk for diseases like typhoid that can escalate rapidly and require primary healthcare services.

In Ghana, widespread poverty and a lack of alternative income opportunities drive illegal artisanal mining. Families are often caught between the need for income and the environmental and health consequences of such activities. Those dependent on artisanal mining are most likely to fall ill and least likely to access quality healthcare.

While mining continues due to its economic benefits, it is crucial to protect families and communities increasingly exposed to unsafe drinking water. Typhoid conjugate vaccines (TCV) present an affordable solution to safeguard against typhoid. Despite the numerous risks associated with illegal mining, TCV offers a proven method to mitigate one health factor, protecting families and communities from potentially deadly infectious diseases.

By: Michael Sarpong Mfum

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