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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene – and Gold?

April 21, 2013

A few months ago, I went into the field for my first real mission.  It was a technical evaluation to determine the feasibility of different water and sanitation (WASH) projects, and it was fascinating.

But beyond getting my first real taste of field work in my new position, one of the most interesting things that I learned was the effect gold mining has on water and hygiene within rural communities, and the very limited effect humanitarian aid can have in the absence of a functioning system of government.

English: Crystaline Gold


One of the places that I went was a gold mining town called Misisi.  The discovery of gold in Misisi transformed it from a small village to a bustling center of close to 40,000 people (nobody really knows exactly how many).  People come from far a wide to either try their luck, or to offer services to those searching for gold.

People mine for gold everywhere, from simple panning of riverbeds to spraying hillsides with high powered hoses (hydraulic mining).  Even the center of town was full of small plots staked out by one person or another.  Stories of immense riches are commonplace, and in town it is not uncommon to see a group of men (it was an all-male trade from what I saw) in a corner shop with a case of beer surrounded by friends, some perhaps genuine, but others very likely paid hourly, celebrating what must have been a particularly lucrative day.

Unfortunately, behind the success stories, there was a much darker side of desperation, despair, and lawlessness in a free-for-all community where anything goes.

In an effort to help the local community, WASH humanitarian actors have tried to intervene several times, though with little lasting success.

During my trip, I saw protected water springs that had been destroyed when gold was found in the vicinity.  I saw the ruins of a particularly impressive water distribution system that used to take water from a spring 15 km away and delivered it to 24 public tapstands through the town- the supply pipes had been broken and the water diverted by gold miners who wanted the water for themselves.

Water is still collected by some residents, but the water points are mostly monopolized by people who have made it their business to fill up 20 liter jugs and then resell them in town.

People waiting at a protected spring just outside of town

People waiting at a protected spring just outside of town

The streets are lined with trash and the smell of human waste frequently assaults the senses as you walk around.  Water borne diseases are abundant and the area is a serious concern as a future hotbed for cholera.

Little rivers have run dry and the larger rivers run brown with sediment.

Gold mining area along side a creek bed

Gold mining area along side a creek bed

According to a local chief, for the last decade, since the mining trade exploded, the fish of the river are no longer good to eat.  Women and children bear the brunt of the difficulties as they are the most vulnerable and tasks related to water and hygiene almost always fall on their shoulders.

I found it to be such a disturbing example of one side of human nature, of an individualistic mentality and a complete disregard for others.

But, on the other hand, who can blame them?  In a reality where people live off of only a few dollars a day, coupled with a mentality of “take what you can now because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” maybe it’s not all that surprising that the prospect of making up to $300 in a day leads to some poor decisions.

To me, the real issue is lack of an authority with the power to do anything about it.  And until there is, no amount of humanitarian aid will have any real impact there.

Since this first field experience I’ve gotten to experience several others.  And during these subsequent interventions I felt like our program was able to have a real and positive impact on other communities with which we were working.

However, my experience in Misisi will remain with me as a clear example of how humanitarian interventions are limited in their capacity, and that without the presence of a capable government, long-lasting change for the better will be difficult to come by.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Aunt Melodee permalink
    April 21, 2013 11:21 pm

    Wow, what an eye-opening story. This is so true, even in my work. Meaningful and sustainable change has to come from all angles, all around (outside aid), up from the ground (the people), and certainly down from the top (government/legislative power).

    • Tom Robinette permalink
      April 22, 2013 4:17 pm

      I wonder if Africa will ever have a central government?

      • Katie R permalink*
        April 23, 2013 10:08 pm

        Haha… yes, maybe someday the proud nation of Africa will have a strong central government…

  2. Tom Robinette permalink
    April 22, 2013 4:16 pm

    Great observations. It really sounds like you’re describing mid 1800’s America.


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