Farmers use contaminated Birim River to irrigate crops

Farmers along the Birim River are using the water body, confirmed to contain suspended particles and some levels of arsenic and mercury due to illegal mining, to irrigate their crops.

Vegetable farmers along the river at Akim Oda and its tributary, Mmor at Akwatia, rely heavily on the yellowish flowing water, said to be filled with metals dangerous to human health.

The vegetables, according to the farmers, are sent to markets in cities and towns, including Koforidua, Madina, Nsawam  and Accra.

During a visit to the Birim River the  Daily Graphic saw hectares of vegetables, including pepper, tomatoes and okro, which had been planted and were being watered by farmers with water that research scientists say could be  harmful to human health.

It was observed that the farmers had connected huge water hoses to water pumps powered by generators to draw the water from the river.

A follow-up to the Water Research Institute (WRI) showed that the institute had in two different researches found  that the river contained levels of arsenic higher than the recommended limits of the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA). 

The  water also contains suspended materials of 1000 milligrammes per litre (ml/l) which is higher than the 40ml/l allowed by the Water Resources Commission.

The Birim River takes its source from the Atiwa Forest range and has been identified by research scientists as one of the most polluted sources of water in the country because of the activities of illegal miners who use all kinds of chemicals in their trade.

Ghana’s mining laws require that mining companies treat water used for mining activities before they are discharged into the environment but in the case of the illegal miners, water bodies are the centre of operation, a situation that makes communities living along the river vulnerable to the risks of the dangerous chemicals.  

Communities along the Birim River depend on it heavily for both domestic and agricultural purposes, a situation that makes them vulnerable. 

With little regard for the environment,  the illegal miners, popularly known as ‘galamseyers’,  mine in the river, close to the river banks or direct the course to mine minerals from the river basin.

Traces of two heavy metals, arsenic and mercury, found in the river in a research conducted by the Water Research Institute (WRI), have been tagged as harmful by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Although the WRI found small traces of the dangerous chemicals in the river, the WHO paints a deadly picture of the chemicals, saying even small amounts may cause serious health problems, and are a threat to the development of the child in the womb.

According to the WHO, arsenic is  highly toxic in its inorganic form and water contaminated with the chemical used for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to public health.
The polluted state of the Birirm River in the Eastern Region
It warns that “long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes”.

On the other hand, mercury, the more popular of the two chemicals, in illegal mining, is considered by WHO as one of the top 10 chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern.
“Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. People are mainly exposed to methylmercury, an organic compound, when they eat fish and shellfish that contain the compound,” the organisation said on its website. 

Farmers unaware
It is 9 a.m. near the steel bridge on the Birim in Akim Oda. Mr Pascal Owusu, with the assistance of his employee, is busily splashing the yellowish water over pepper plants.

Although he admitted that the water appeared polluted, he said the plants needed it or the heat of the dry season would kill most of them. 

He denied the possibility of contaminating the vegetables with chemicals, saying, “It is just dirty, there are no dangerous chemicals in it.”

Mr Owusu is a former illegal miner who quit because the business had become risky and less lucrative.

Like many farmers along the banks of rivers polluted by illegal miners, he is unaware that the river is too contaminated to be used for irrigation.  

But Mr Martin Asmah, a research scientist of the WRI who studied the environmental quality assessment of the Upper Birim River in 2011, said at the time the research was conducted, the illegal mining activities were not pronounced as they are today, adding that “there is a great possibility that the level of contamination may go up”.

Difficult to stop farmers
The Director of Agriculture of the Birim South Municipal Assembly, Dr Felicia Ansah-Amprofi, acknowledged that the river could be contaminated but added that the directorate had not done any scientific analysis to tell the level of pollution.  

“It is difficult to stop the farmers from using the river for irrigation in the wake of erratic rainfall patterns. Last year, the rain stopped suddenly and they lost most of their crops. Many fields of maize just dried up. They don’t have anything else to use.”

Mr Lawrence Alato, an agriculturalist at the Plant Protection and Regulatory Division of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, said apart from the dangers posed by the chemicals, the suspended particles also produced bacteria and funguses that compelled farmers to use more pesticide, which, if not well handled, posed danger to the consumer.

Many of the stakeholders proffered different solutions to the problem, but Dr Ansah-Amprofi said the only way out was an end to illegal mining.

“Those who are polluting the water should stop. The farmers don’t have a choice. They can’t watch a river flowing while watching their crops die,” she said.

However, Mr Humphrey Darko, a research scientist whose work found that the Birim River was not appropriate for irrigation, advised the farmers to stop using the river and find an alternative.

“The best thing is to refrain from using the Birim for irrigation purposes. If they can dig some shallow wells that will be better than the use of the polluted river.”


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