As a child travelling down southern Ghana from the north some two decades ago, I remember the colour of the White Volta as I crossed it at Yapei. It looked milky, very much like the colour of tea with a generous amount of milk.
Recently, while flying to Accra from Tamale, I witnessed the beauty and enormity of the river as it meandered its way down southern Ghana, emptying its creamy content into the Volta Lake around the middle belt of the country.
One other thing that captured my imagination was the colour of the river, which has changed from creamy tea to the colour of water flowing through a gutter after a downpour. For a river, that derives its name; the White Volta from its colour, I was alarmed at the change of colour.
Further checks at the Ghana Water Company Limited that depends on the river to feed its customers in Tamale, and its surrounding areas revealed my greatest fears.
According to the Regional Manager of the GWCL, Stephen Ndebugri, the turbidity of the river has increased many times fold in the last two decades.
The situation is so bad that the GWCL loses nearly 22 percent of water daily in an effort to treat it for the ever-increasing population of Tamale and its environs.
This translates into a deficit of about thirteen thousand cubic meters of treated water daily, forcing the company to ration water to some parts of the metropolis.
The White Volta is a victim of human activities including farming and deforestation, which have combined to loosen the soils along the river basin.
During rains, the alluvial soil is washed into the river. However, the greatest threat to the White Volta is sand winning. Sand winners have pitched camp around Nawuni, and with the help of excavators dig directly from the river.
Tonnes of sand are harvested from the river daily, while others engage in the practice along the shoulders of the river. A recent visit to the area, revealed the devastation being caused by sand winners, who work night and day to feed the growing demand for sand in the Tamale metropolis.
The National Security burnt a number of tipper trucks and excavators in an attempt to stop the practice, but sand winning continues unabated in the most affected areas, where mud is pumped back into the river after it is separated from the sand.
The White Volta is a source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of fishermen and farmers who live along the river. This group of persons have also complained of a drop in the catch and farm produce as a result of the pollution of the river.
The devastation of the White Volta is huge and therefore requires urgent attention to prevent a future without water for residents of Tamale. Stakeholders need to sit together and dialogue over the best possible solution to the problem and to prevent people from the river.
The company warns that, unless urgent steps are taken to address the matter, residents of at least six MMDAs including Tamale and Sagnerigu, face a future without water.
As a major step towards protecting the river from further pollution, it is imperative that sand winning is disallowed at least two kilometres away from the river basin. There is growing demand for sand in a fast-growing Tamale. However, water and what it does is important to sustain life in this sprawling metropolis, therefore the life of the White Volta cannot be sacrificed for the city.
Moreover, an alternative source of sand should be explored to prevent over-dependence on the sand along the Volta. As a suggestion, the area along the Volta Lake in Makango has enormous amount of quality sea sand for construction and sand winners could be directed there.
Furthermore, assemblies should enforce their by-laws on environmental degradation and anyone caught flouting rules should be severely sanctioned.
Political influence has been a major problem in attempts in the past to clear the area of sand winners. It is, therefore, necessary to elicit the support of political powers in the area and this should include chiefs and opinion leaders.
The White Volta is a beauty to behold, it feeds hundreds of thousands of inhabitants along its path and any threat to its survival must be seen as a threat to the civilizations along its path.