On October 16, 2001, a tailings dam burst at the Tarkwa gold mine in the Wassa West District of Ghana sending thousands of cubic meters of mine waste into the Asuman River and contaminating it with cyanide and heavy metals. The Tarkwa mine is operated by Gold Fields Ghana, a South African gold mining company. The disaster left more than one thousand people without access to drinking water. Virtually all life forms in the river and its tributary were killed. Hundreds of dead fish, crabs, and birds lay on the banks of the river and floated to the surface.
At least five villages were affected by this spill. According to Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, executive director of the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining (WACAM), “People in the villages of Abekoase and Huni have lost their clean drinking water and their livelihood as they can no longer sell or eat produce from their farms through which the river runs. Gold Fields should not hide from their responsibility for damages. We need to demand compensation for those directly affected by mining disasters.” The worst-affected village, Abekoase, took legal action against the company to claim compensation. In December 2003, an out of court settlement was reached between the village of Abekoase and the mining company to establish a development fund for the village. But the cyanide and heavy metal residue from the spill could remain for decades, posing a health and environmental threat to the people and animal life in the area.
Once known as the Gold Coast in colonial times, Ghana is Africa's second largest producer of gold after South Africa. The spill at Tarkwa was one of five cyanide spills in Ghana over a period of seven years which have polluted water supplies and forced many families to abandon their farms. In the Wassa West District alone, eight large open-pit mining companies are operating within a 2,354 square kilometer area. This is quite possibly the highest concentration of open-pit mines in all of Africa. To make the situation even worse, in January 2003, water from an abandoned underground mine at Tarkwa seeped into the Asuman River creating new worries of water contamination.
Gold mining in Ghana has been touted by the government of Ghana and international financial institutions as the path to economic development. Massive privatization of the mining sector began in 1986 under a World Bank-IMF Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Environmental regulation was minimized. As a result of the favorable investment climate, 70 to 85 percent of the large-scale mining industry is now foreign-owned. But, communities are feeling the toll. In the Wassa area, mining displaced 30,000 people between 1990 and 1998. At the same time, mining has caused social turmoil in affected communities by taking away large tracts of land from farmers, often using force and without adequate compensation.