Theo Anderson, a Ghanaian ecologist, moved gingerly up to the edge of the pond, and remarked in a friendly way: "If you fall in there, you'll be dead in minutes". He wasn't joking. The Korle Lagoon in Ghana's capital of Accra is one of the most polluted places on earth. It is a natural depression that serves as a cesspool for most of the city's industrial and human waste -- it is an environmental nightmare. Owing to the pollution, no living thing, animal or plant, has been able to grow in it for years. Even boaters steer clear of its thick, black nauseating syrup. Its stench wafts back to envelop the adjoining shantytown that is home to hundreds of families who, because they have no sanitation facilities, have turned the shores of the lagoon into a giant latrine.

Korle Lagoon is perhaps an extreme example of pollution, but in fact the ecological group Friends of the Earth has found similar disasters, on a smaller scale, all along this coast, where ten major rivers empty into the Gulf of Guinea. In a survey of 95 lagoons, they found only 5 that had acceptable pollution levels.

With its marvellous beaches and its ancient fortresses from the slave trading days, Ghana's coast has tremendous tourist potential. But what concerns ecologists most of all is the outstanding economic importance that these lagoons represent for the three million people who live beside them. Indeed, the significance of these lagoons reaches well beyond Ghana's borders -- their yield of salt, fish and wood is sold as far away as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Yet today, the felling of trees for firewood, and fishing people's use of small mesh nets, chemicals and explosives, are destroying the area's aquatic life and threaten the very survival of communities that depend on it.

Three quarters of the mangroves are already gone. Shore dwellers now have to buy wood at market in order to smoke their fish and evaporate salt water. The impact is especially heavy on women, since it is they who must cut the wood, smoke the fish, and carry salt from the lagoons. According to Theo Anderson, director of Friends of the Earth in Ghana, there are many other factors as well contributing to this degradation; the dumping of garbage and sewage into the rivers that feed the lagoons, the conversion of these lagoons into salt marshes, demographic growth and encroachment along the shores. People settle around the lagoons in the hope of making a living from their fish and salt. They are also attracted by the relative absence of mosquitoes, thanks to the salt water.


Environmentalist Theo Anderson has just finished a two and a half year study of Ghana's lagoons, funded by IDRC. His report proposes a series of steps for cleaning up the lagoons. He believes that if a stop can be put to further pollution, then the action of the rain and the tides will do the rest. And in this campaign to limit pollution, he hopes to be able to rely on an important ally -- the shore dwellers themselves.

In Ghana, there is a great spiritual importance attached to these lagoons. It is said they are inhabited by spirits. The water itself is sacred, and traditional beliefs dictate a code of conduct that must be strictly observed. Sometimes, science and ancestral law can team up together. For example, people wondered why fishing was traditionally forbidden at certain times of the year, and it turned out that these times coincided with the fish spawning season.

In areas where Christian beliefs have taken hold, the worship of nature is discouraged and people are encouraged to worship human centred gods. In recent years, however, some clergy have played a constructive role in supporting wise management and conservation. Further education of priests and pastors holds potential for significant positive influence.

Anderson thinks that the persistent strength of traditional beliefs in regions where Christian beliefs are weaker could be put to good use in enlisting people's efforts for the protection and clean up of the lagoons. He plans to organize information sessions to try to convince shore dwellers that they have a duty to protect their resources, just as their ancestral laws decree. This education program is to be accompanied by steps to empower local leaders and give them the means and incentive to take action, for example, by building latrines.

Ecologists are looking to United Nations agencies to help fund this project. They hope to make their request more compelling by selecting polluted sites that could arouse international interest, such as waterfowl nesting areas. As to the Ghanaian government, it is paying the price for its status as favourite pupil of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The introduction of structural adjustment programs has meant that subsidies to health, education and social services have all had to be cut back. Even though Ghana's government coffers are bare, Friends of the Earth hopes to gain state support for a coordinated pollution control and waste disposal policy.


In urban centres like Accra, the people of Ghana have lost their traditional beliefs. It will be difficult to ensure their cooperation, Anderson fears, now that they no longer have the same sense of community, and are instead often preoccupied with making money. The only solution, he believes, may be to pass an environmental law accompanied by heavy penalties and effective enforcement.

In recent months, Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings succeeded in winning a Saudi Arabian bank's backing for tackling Ghana's most daunting environmental task -- cleaning up the Korle Lagoon. Yet even with the best of intentions, there is a limit to what politicians can do, ecologists fear. "It's hopeless," Theo Anderson muttered as he surveyed one of the canals draining into the lagoon. A few feet away, an enormous sow was wallowing in a toxic mud bath a metre deep. A little further on, children were happily plunging headfirst into the outlet of this cesspool, where its sewage filled overflow slowly mingles with the first waves of the ocean.

Robert Bourgoing

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