Eviscerating the Right to Water in Riparian Communities: Stemming Mining Activities in Ghana 

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By Dr Felix Nana Kofi Ofori, UWE Alumni, Member of Environmental Law and Sustainability Research Group 


Throughout the gold-mining communities in Ghana, vast swathes of land, bodies of rivers and streams have turned brownish as a result of unregulated mining activities as well as prospecting for mineral resources. Most alarmingly, the Ghana Water Corporation Limited (GWCL), in 2022, has warned that it will stop supplying water to the Ghanaian population because of the extra high cost of chemicals purchased to treat the heavily polluted water sources in the country. Besides the severe health and environmental impacts being suffered by the people, the following questions are worth answering: Could it be that the right to water is non-existent in Ghana? And would there ever be a political-will by the government to protect access to water? 

To answer the above questions, this blog is organised as follows: the right to water as a state obligation; states’ duty to protect the right/access to quality water; and stemming the challenges of mining operations in Ghana.  

The Right to Water as a State Duty  

Under General Comment No. 15, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) emphasised that states have a covenant duty of ensuring the progressive realisation of the right to water without discrimination on grounds of race, status or creed. The use of the word “progressive” is often misconstrued or as a pretext by some states to evade the responsibility of protecting access to water, especially among the poorest and deprived communities, as in the riparian towns of Ghana. Although developing states such as Ghana have limited financial resources to meet the socio-economic needs of their populations, the uniqueness of water as a critical component for the survival of human-beings distinguishes it from all other resources; thus, impelling states (Ghana included), to protect the right to water with altruistic financial and regulatory commitments to guard against water pollution activities. Equally as stipulated in General Comment No. 25, the right to water has three obligations namely the obligation to respect, to protect and fulfil.  

First, the obligation to respect requires States (Ghana included) to refrain from polluting water resources; arbitrarily and illegally disconnecting water and sanitation services; reducing the provision of safe drinking-water to poor communities in order to meet the demand of wealthier areas; destroying water services and infrastructure as a punitive measure during crisis era; or depleting water resources that indigenous peoples rely upon. However, the continuous pollution of water bodies throughout Ghana, particularly in the riparian communities indicate that the right to water is severely damaged or non-existent.  

Second, the obligation to protect requires States to prevent third parties from interfering with the right to water. This also means that States should adopt legislation or other measures to ensure that private actors—e.g., industry, water providers or individuals mining and prospecting for mineral resources—comply with human rights standards related to the right to water.  

Despite the obligation to protect the right to water, the reality on the ground tells a profound story of how the right to water is almost eviscerated. This is evidenced by the rampant illegal mining activities by public and private agencies, coupled with feeble state regulations, to stem the threat which is injurious to human health, biodiversity, environment and sustainable development. 

Third, the obligation to fulfil means States must, among other things, adopt a national policy on water that: gives priority in water management to essential personal and domestic uses;  identifies the resources available to meet these goals; specifies the most cost-effective way of using them;  monitors results and outcomes, including ensuring adequate remedies for violations.  

Contrary to these obligations, the current and successive governments of Ghana had implemented politically expedient or weak regulations incapable to protect water bodies against pollution and environmental degradation. It is further obvious from the preceding discussion that the right to water and the environment, as witnessed in the riparian communities of Ghana are savagely damaged; thus an urgent solution is required to stem the crisis. 

Stemming the Mining Challenges of Ghana’s riparian communities 

A human rights-based approach should be instituted across the country particularly within the riparian communities, emboldening them to participate in decisions that affect water resources management; as well as, hold duty-bearers and private agencies accountable for their actions in polluting water sources and environmental degradation. 

‘Leaving no one behind’ is the key promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In this vein, Ghana needs to infuse the ‘right to water’ more practically into its sustainable development programmes across all sectors of country; and especially at the community level, where critical resources such as water, biodiversity and plants and fauna are endangered. It also requires that extensive educational programmes are initiated and implemented to enlighten the indigenous people of their rights and obligations as primary custodians to protect and guard against the destruction of their resources including water bodies. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Ghana) should be proactive in monitoring and enforcing existing regulations against harmful chemical uses by both public and private organisations that engage in mining operations. By this, those entities perpetuating degrading activities against the people, water sources and the environment will be prosecuted or fined so as to promote the sustainable development policy and efforts of Ghana. The World Economic Forum ranks the water crisis in the top 3 of global risks for the third consecutive year. Failing to respond effectively to these challenges will have devastating global effects, (Water Action-Decade, 2018-2028). Global crisis calls for global solution, beginning from the national and communal levels. Against this backdrop, it essential that the Ghanaian political leadership adopts creative lasting solution to stem pollution of all water sources in the country  as  a strategy to improve the people’s health thereby minimising the global water crisis of which Ghana is a party. Protecting the right to water is an imperative duty because majority of the people depend on the water bodies within their communities for socio-economic livelihood which in turn guarantee them human rights and dignity.

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