Lake Volta

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Today, eastern Ghana’s Lake Volta is the largest body of water in West Africa, but the wide expanse of water was non-existent before 1965. While a dam on the Volta River in the Akosombo Gorge was proposed as early as 1915, it was not until the post-World War II era of African decolonisation that real plans to create the largest reservoir by surface area in the entire world were developed, fuelled by the twin desires of an international aluminum company looking for hydroelectric power to fuel an aluminum smelter and a nascent country looking to create energy independence. The consequences of the construction of the Akosombo Dam and Lake Volta were and are many and massive.

The build-up to the dam’s construction began in 1949, eight years before Ghana’s independence, when the then-Gold Coast government commissioned a study on the potential of a hydroelectric development on the Volta. As the 1950s progressed and independence neared, a rather grand scheme emerged, backed soon-to-be independent country’s president, Kwame Nkrumah. The scheme involved harnessing the power of the river for use in powering an aluminum smelter at the village of Tema 25 km east of the capital, Accra, as the government was looking to develop Tema into a major seaport. 80% of power generated would go to the smelter; the rest to domestic usage and to sell to neighbouring countries. In turn, revenues from the smelter would go toward the establishment of local bauxite mines; it was hoped that eventually the smelter would be able to run on Ghanaian bauxite alone, making the entire plan self-sufficient. The project would be funded by the Volta Aluminum Company (Valco), a joint venture of the government and Alcoa, and implemented by Kaiser Aluminum. The cost of the project would an at-the-time astronomical £230 million (US$258 million); something the new country could not afford. By 1962, funds had been raised from Valco shareholders (thanks to the granting of exemptions from taxes on company imports and exports) and from a loan from the United States government’s Export-Import Bank. By this time, construction had already begun on the rock-fill Akosombo Dam under the authority of the Ghanaian government’s Volta River Authority and implemented by the Italian Impregilo engineering firm. Outside funding also powered dam construction; in this case, funds from the United States, the United Kingdom, and a World Bank loan.

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Source: ZSM, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Akosombo_Dam_is_spilling_water,_Ghana.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

With the completion of the dam, the world’s largest artificially-created lake was formed, covering 8,502 km2 (3,283 sq mi) of eastern Ghana and stretching 400 km (250 sq mi) from end to end. The lake covers 3.6% percent of Ghana’s entire land area and, thanks to its numerous dendritic reaches and arms, features over 4 800 km (3 000 miles) of shoreline. Within 15 years of the completion of the Akosombo Dam, the great leaps in industrialisation and urbanisation in Ghana meant that Lake Volta was no longer fulfilling the country’s power needs, which led to the construction of the smaller Kpong Dam downstream in 1981. Together, the two dams provide 70% of Ghana’s electricity, although in years where water levels are low, rolling blackouts are common.

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The powerhouse at the Akosombo Dam. Source: A. Stillwell, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Akosombo_Dam_hydroelectric_plant.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence.

While the construction of Lake Volta was good for industry, especially in the urban centres, it wiped out much of the rural economy in eastern Ghana, and adversely affected both social and health conditions in the region. 80 000 people had to be relocated as 700 villages were flooded (52 new villages would serve as homes for the evacuees). Many other residents found their villages now sitting on new islands in the middle of the lake isolated from the mainland. Despite the potential for irrigation, even as of 2006, just 2% of the potential irrigation area was actually irrigated despite the allotment of 100 000 hectares of farmland (the tradeoffs between extracting water from the water for irrigation versus keeping the water in the reservoir for the purposes of power generation should be noted).

Having lost the ability to farm and graze, many had to turn to fishing in the lake for subsistence. The dire economic conditions led to the disturbing use of child slaves in the lake’s fishing industry, as those who could no longer support their children sold their children into bondage, often for a pittance (around $50 to $100). Between 4 000 and 10 000 trafficked children are believed to work on Lake Volta preparing fish, untangling nets, performing domestic chores, and selling wares on the roadside from 12 to 17 hours a day, often going without any education and subject to horrific beatings. The lake is now so overfished and depleted that the industry has become increasingly unprofitable, further encouraging use of illegal child labour. And with the lack of government funding available to properly prosecute persons involved in child slavery, it is unlikely the practice will stop soon unless economic conditions improve. Conditions are so bad that some of the new villages have experienced 50% population depletions as people move elsewhere in search of economic success. There are also issues with prostitution and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the region, as the constant migration has propagated HIV on a widespread basis to the Volta basin.

The wide, shallow expanses of the lake led to an increase in aquatic snails within the lake basin, particularly ones hosting parasitic worms. Rates of schistosomiasis in lakeside communities have increased 70-to-100 percent since the arrival of the lake, exacerbated by the construction of the second dam.In one area, the prevalence of intestinal schistosomiasis rose from 6% to 53.3% between 1989 and 1993. The two dams have also slowed the flow of the Volta considerably downstream. The lessened water flow in the estuary and the reduction of saltwater influx back into the estuary led to the invasion of weeds and the further silting of the estuary where the Volta empties into the Atlantic; a dredging project was needed in order to restore balance. The lack of natural flooding and silt deposition killed off crop yields for downstream farmers. Fishers were adversely affected by the decline in shrimp and oyster populations, which in turn led to a lack of food for fish and other water-borne animals to feed on.Lagoons and small creeks also began to dry up south of the dams due to the lack of inflow.

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Dead trees rise from the lake.Source: Eggi, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Volta-lake-ghosttree.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

One suggestion for improving the Lake Volta economy has been to log the lake floor. Thousands of square kilometres of flooded mahogany forest lurk below the surface, providing a navigational hazard for boaters and an annoyance for fishers whose nets get snagged on the dead trunks. Logging the giant hardwoods would provide a ready-made source of high-quality timber from some years to come without having to log nearby forests, and would also remove the navigational hazards from the lake. The Volta River Authority has also funded the construction of shrimp farms along the lower stretches of the river, chemotherapy operations for persons afflicted with schistosomiasis, and education programs promoting tactics designed to guard against the disease, resulting in a near-elimination of the disease in the lower basin. It’s a good start, but other water-borne disease such as malaria and river blindness persist, as do the myriad of challenges facing the residents of the Lake Volta region.

Further Reading

Baumann, G. (2007). Eradicating Child Slavery in West Africa: Priorities emerging from our work in Ghana. Free the Slaves, September 2007. Available at http://www.freetheslaves.net/Document.Doc?id=20. Accessed 27 July 2011.

Conway, S. (2009). The Slaves of Lake Volta. Big World, June 2009. Available at http://www.bigworldmagazine.com/slaves-of-lake-volta/. Accessed 27 July 2011.

Field, A. (2007). Harvesting an Underwater Forest. Stanford Business Magazine, November 2007. Available at http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/bmag/sbsm0711/feature-harvest.html. Accessed 27 July 2011.

Fobil, J.N. and D.K. Attuquayefio (2003). Remediation of the environmental Impacts of the Akosombo and Kpong Dams in Ghana. HORIZON Solutions Site, 28 April 2003. Available at http://www.solutions-site.org/artman/publish/article_53.shtml. Accessed 27 July 2011.

GhanaWeb (n.d.). History of Akosombo dam. Available at http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/history/akosombo_dam.php. Accessed 26 July 2011.

Gordon, C. (2006). Background paper for the multi-stakeholder consultation process for dams development in Ghana. Legon: Volta Basin Research Project, University of Ghana. Available at http://www.unep.org/dams/files/Country%20Dialogues/BackgroundStudyGhana.pdf. Accessed 27 July 2011.

Van de Giesen, N. et al. (2001). Competition for water resources of the Volta Basin. Regional Management of Water Resources. Proceedings of a symposium held during the Sixth IAHS Scientific Assembly at Maastricht, The Netherlands, July 2001. IAHS Publ. no. 268, 2001. Available at http://www.glowa.org/de/literaturliste/dateien/competition_in_volta_basin.pdf. Accessed 27 July 2011.

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