The devastating effects of climate change and mining on two rivers in Ivory Coast and Mali

The Sassandra River, it was once lined with mangroves and teeming with fish. Photo used with permission from CENOZO

This article can be found on the CENOZO website. It was written by Aïssatou Fofana (Côte d’Ivoire), Abou Traoré (Côte d’Ivoire), and Kangaye Sangaré (Mali) as part of the “West Africa Confronting Climate Change” project with the support of CENOZO. This modified version is published under a content partnership agreement between Global Voices and CENOZO.

The Sassandra and Niger rivers play a crucial role in West Africa, serving as a vital source of water for millions of people and a habitat supporting abundant wildlife. Unfortunately, climate change and human activities, notably mining, have had a devastating effect on these two rivers, making them increasingly uninhabitable for many species and threatening the livelihoods of those who depend on them. Our investigation, conducted with the support of CENOZO and the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), reveals the extent of this phenomenon.

Four hundred and forty kilometers away from Ivory Coast’s capital Abidjan, Guessabo is a bustling city in the west of the country. It was known as the “city of fish” and was famous for providing the finest and largest selection of seafood in the region, with various options available such as fresh or smoked varieties, whilst catering to a diverse range of tastes and budgets.

Today, climate change and human overconsumption have taken their toll on this once-thriving industry. In January 2016, we reported on how fishermen were coping with this phenomenon. Since 2005, the situation has gotten worse. Moreover, the drying up of the river and the covert mining activities undertaken by neighboring villages have threatened the welfare of the local communities.

According to a study titled “Hydrology and morphology of the Sassandra River estuary, Lower Ivory Coast,” conducted in 2015 by researchers from Felix Houphouet Boigny University’s Faculty of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Department of Marine Geosciences, the Oceanographic Research Center of Abidjan (CRO), the Laboratory of Physics and Marine Geology (PHYGEM), and the University Research and Application Center in Remote Sensing (CURAT), the drying up of the Sassandra River has been a reality for several years.

Water reversal caused by climate change and human intervention

A study by researchers from Jean Lorougnon Guédé University in Daloa (a city in central-western Ivory Coast) highlights the toxicity of the water in the Sassandra River, which supplies drinking water to the cities in the Haut-Sassandra region and the Duekoué region, upstream of the Buyo dam. This research has shown that:

Agricultural inputs, gold mining, and household waste are contributing significantly to the contamination of the Sassandra River with heavy metals. The researchers have pointed out that the increased pollution of the river’s aquatic ecosystems is a result of urbanisation, agriculture, gold mining activities, and to a lesser extent, industrialisation.

The research also suggests that “the high levels of mercury and copper found in the sediments of Lake Guessabo represent a potential danger, making them a source of endogenous pollution.” This contamination has the potential to endanger the health of those who consume fish from the river or water from the dam. The study also emphasizes the disturbance of the river’s ecosystem caused by these activities, which has resulted in the disappearance of various fish species. The presence of metal pollutants in the water column has the potential to compromise water quality and endanger aquatic life.

Mercury enrichment — a highly toxic metal identified by its silver-colored liquid state — “has been detected in the area and is likely the result of human activities such as agriculture (which uses insecticides, fungicides, bactericides, and herbicides), paint, electrical appliance usage, and pharmaceutical products. The study also reports that poor waste management in the area is he cause of this pollution, and the resulting ecological risks could lead to the contamination of the river, groundwater, and ultimately, the water table.”, according to the same study.

Driven by the desire to maximize profits, gold miners resort to the excessive use of technical means such as dredges, heavy machinery, and toxic substances like mercury and cyanide. According to the Initial Assessment Report of the Minamata Convention, these substances, when released into the air during the burning of mercury-gold, mix into the water and soil during the process of amalgamating gold ores, posing a danger to both the environment and humans.

The contamination of rivers due to mining and the effects of climate change are not limited to the Sassandra River in Côte d’Ivoire. The Niger River in Mali is also experiencing similar issues.

Gold mining is threatening the Niger River in Mali

Since 2001, Mali has become the third-largest gold producer on the continent after South Africa and Ghana. In recent decades, the race for gold has intensified, leading to the proliferation of traditional gold mining sites. In the Sikasso Region (district of Yanfolila), the Koulikoro region, and in Kayes, gold extraction pollutes the rivers, in this case, the Niger River, 42 percent of whose total length crosses Mali, according to the report on the state of the Niger River in Mali.

According to the same report, the Niger River is the primary source of surface water in Mali, and three out of four Malians live in its basin and depend on its resources in one way or another.

Dredging for gold —which entails extracting the precious metal from sand, gravel, and soil in riverbeds — is common in the area. This process uses chemicals such as mercury and cyanide and poses a serious threat to the river and the species that depend on it.

In response to this environmental disaster, the Malian government suspended dredging for gold in the country’s rivers for 12 months starting in May 15, 2019. However, this was in vain, as dredging promoters resumed their activities once the deadline expired.

Professor Adama Tolofoudié, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Science, Techniques and Technology in Bamako (USTTB), stated that “even if all gold mining activities by dredging in Mali’s rivers were to be suspended, it would take 20 years to decontaminate the water. The practice of gold mining by dredging in the Niger River increases water turbidity, making it unsuitable for irrigation and depleting fish populations in the river.”

Gold mining is highly complex in Mali, and its impact is enormous

Residents living along the Yanfolila River in the Sikasso region and of Kangaba in the Koulikoro region claim that it is impossible to use the water from the river for anything except for washing dishes and laundry. “Due to high levels of exposure, the population often experiences unknown illnesses that are difficult to diagnose. The entire income generated from these sites is then used to cover their medical expenses,” explains Fatoumata Traoré, a teacher in Yanfolila.

Despite the severe pollution in the river caused by various factors besides gold mining, such as households, agriculture, transportation, and industrial and artisanal activities, the authorities still struggle to make firm decisions to address this issue. An official from one of the visited areas said that whenever a conflict breaks out on a mining site, to ensure their safety, they transfer the governor out of the area. He stated that “the history of gold mining in Mali is very complex, and the impacts are enormous.”

The alarming effects of climate change on the Sassandra and Niger rivers are becoming increasingly apparent. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, sediment buildup, and water shortages are all devastating the rivers’ ecosystems, making them increasingly inhospitable to many species and threatening the livelihoods of those who depend on them.

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