Illegal mining, water quality and gender gap along the Bia river, Ghana
In this new post of the series “(En)Gendering water diplomacy” Isaac Barnes analyses the connection between land tenure, illegal mining, water quality and lack of women voice. He calls for more investments in education and alternative livelihoods opportunities to increase women representation and to restore the river ecosystem.
The Tano-Bia river basin is shared between Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and includes the Bia River. In Ghana, the Bia River is located within the transitional zone of the Bia Biosphere Reserve and flows along the Western North region of Ghana to Cote d ‘ Ivoire (Figure 1).
Assessing human impact on the river through gendered lenses
The shared river faces a variety of management challenges that affect nearby communities. For instance, the seasonal changes in the quality and quantity of the river are worsened by anthropogenic activities such as illegal mining – locally known as Galamsay – and unsustainable farming practices undertaken upstream of the river. These practices have resulted in poor water quality for downstream communities such as Mansokrom. The gradual shift of the land use along this water body for illegal mining activities upstream drastically affect the socio-economic activities developed along the Bia River downstream. The growing anthropogenic activities on water bodies poses a negative threat on ecosystems and communities whose primary livelihood directly and indirectly depends on this resource. To this end, these impacts are drastically changing the socio-economic and cultural entitlements ascribed by different local community actors to such resources.
An elderly woman interviewed during the study gave an account on the use of the river about six decades ago. She underscore, “this water was pristine, and you could fetch and drink it without treating it. When you drink it, you become strong. We used it as our predominant source of water for all our domestic activities notably; drinking, bathing, and cooking. Occupationally, the water was used for fishing, and watering our crops. Sometimes it served as our source of recreation for the young ones. Fishing was a lucrative business in those days. Farming cocoa was not yet a profitable venture as it is now. Hunting and fishing were our two most predominant occupation.” Another woman interviewed sadly added, “Bia River has become so polluted now. You can hardly recognize it pristine beauty. We cannot drink it or use it for any purpose. I hardly think there are any fish in it now. As you can see around, there is no fishing business any longer here”.
As part of a broader study of the anthropogenic impacts on the Bia Biosphere reserve, this research interrogates the management of water quality challenges through a gendered lens at the village of Mansokrom in Ghana. The study sought to understand the gaps of some formal and informal institutions responsible for managing transboundary water resources in Ghana. Through an analysis of women’s representation at the national scale (WRC) and an assessment of the political, social, and economic dynamics that challenge the voices of women at the community level, this research finds that the voices of women, in particular, tend to be missing when discussing the management and utilization of the Bia river as a livelihood resource. I conclude by proposing economic opportunities to address these patterns in support of improved water management.
Lack of women’s representation within the WRC
In Ghana, according to the 1992 Constitutional provision (Article 268 and 269), water resources are vested in the President for and on behalf of the people. The Water Resources Commission (WRC) was established by an Act of Parliament (Act 522 of 1996) to be the authority responsible in managing water resources in the country on behalf of the President.
The Governing Board of the WRC is made up of 15 members called Commissioners. The Commissioners of WRC include the Chair, Executive Secretary, a Chief and two other persons (one of whom shall be a woman). The other key stakeholders include various water user organizations, water-related commissions, and ministries. Based on the Board’s structure, a statutory allocation is made for at least one female to be represented as a Commissioner. According to the Act, the number of women can be increased, if the commissioners appoint female heads to be represented at the Board. It must be noted that, over the past five decades, all of these Commissioners (historically and currently) have had male representatives. The presence of only one woman at the apex of water resource decision making is woefully inadequate to make the voice of women audible at the national and transboundary scale.
In a bid to address this gender gap, the WRC developed the first Gender and Water Resources Management strategy (2011-2015) to make institutions more responsive and receptive to gender equality as an essential tool for achieving equitable, sustainable use, management, and development of Ghana’s water resources. The Gender and Water Resources Management strategy sought to provide strategic guidelines that ensure appropriate planning and implementation of gender responsiveness activities at national and river basin levels are undertaken in an integrated, consistent and sustainable manner.
However, WRC needs to elevate women’s voices at high-level decision-making forums to better implement the GWRM strategy. WRC can connect with established female water professionals on basin-wide platforms as a means to share experiences and acquire new professional expertise to ensure inclusive water cooperation and management.
The political and social dynamics within communities
Economic practices at the local level foster environmental degradation and contribute to the observed decline in Bia river water quality. Communities living along the Bia river, including the Mansokrom community, engage in agriculture as their main economic activity. To conduct this activity, many rural forest dwellers rely on loans. However, the Western North Region of Ghana faces a high proportion of rejected loan applications due to high interest rates and inability to meet the loan demanded. As a result, many traditional authorities and households instead, lease their lands for illegal mining activities, locally called galamsey, for economic gains. The galamsey practice has been rapidly increasing by inflow of both foreigners and community members. It is becoming an increasing source of pollution of river bodies in Ghana. As a result, the control of land acqusition makes traditional authorities critical actors in water resources management.
The traditional authorities are comprised of diverse groups of representatives, and the Western North communities. These groups include women who are represented by the queen mothers and other prominent women groups. Queen mothers are women who wield social power and influence: they play an important role in local government and traditional authority governance. As such, one can infer that the galamsey is spearheaded by the collective interest of both male and females constituting the traditional authority structure.
However, I saw a different picture from my research conducted in the Mansokrom community between July and December, 2020. It was evident from my interaction with the Mansokrom traditional authority, that men were dominant in decision making and outweighed female representation and voice. Social practices contributed to the diminished voice of females as the women in the traditional authority structure are required to pay homage to the chief, the highest traditional authority in the community, and their husbands. This difference is perpetuated by economic opportunity as a result of social practices and economic limitations. The situation thus minimizes the role of women in traditional authorities and leads to a poor representation of ideas, as most women groups and queen mothers understand the negative impacts the galamsey operations have on their immediate livelihood and wellbeing. To this end, one female respondent noted, “we used to fish in the water bodies, drink, wash from the water body, fish and even use it to water our crops. But now since the galamsey activities destroyed the water, we cannot do all these things.”
These findings indicate that women groups at Mansokrom lack the adequate opportunity and economic freedom to clearly present different perspectives to the often male-dominated voices within the traditional authority structure in leasing out lands for illegal mining.
How economy affects female voice and representation in transboundary water management
From my study and other literature on sustainable forest management, I would recommended the introduction of livelihood adaptation interventions for improved water resources management. Through initiatives of capacity development and livelihood opportunities, communities could expand to work in the areas of beekeeping, snail rearing, mushroom production, and others to help ease the pressure of resource-dependent communities on the natural resources in transitional areas and to incentive communities toward supporting conservation.
If the WRC aims to restore the quality of the river, the commission must expand alternative livelihood opportunities for communities along the Bia river. This expansion will provide decent, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly alternatives to the current practice of galamsey. The provision of alternative livelihood will also provide a safety net to legally enforce measures toward reducing illegal miners’ activities.
Intensifying education, awareness creation, and livelihood adaption support for women will also empower women with a stronger voice to demand environmental stewardship from traditional authorities. Women will not be solely vulnerable to rely and depend on returns gained from galamsey. The evidence above calls for greater investment in education, awareness creation, and intensification of livelihood adaption interventions for community members along the Bia river as a means to reduce pollution of the Bia river body. Together with a concerted effort at the national level, these efforts can strengthen the voices of women for improved water management.