Management of the Irrigation Company of Upper Region (ICOUR) on Wednesday, convened a stakeholders' meeting at Tono near Navrongo, to deliberate on issues threatening the sustainability of the Tono irrigation scheme.
The meeting became necessary following a massive encroachment on the catchment area of the reservoir by farmers recently, a trend that could lead to heavy siltation and possibly, pollution of the water body through agro-chemical use.
In attendance were chiefs, community opinion leaders, assembly members, local smallholder farmers and representatives of the Commercial Farmers Association.
Currently, about 4000 farmers are engaged in agricultural production, mainly vegetable and rice cultivation, at the Tono project site.
Farming activity in the main irrigation project area, however, had to be suspended temporarily to enable contractors to carry out a much-needed rehabilitation on the facility.
The exercise, for which Government has provided eight million Ghana Cedis, began in February this year and is expected to be completed by December 31, 2008.
Unable to endure the waiting, some farmers have moved upstream very close to the dam's reservoir to cultivate vegetables, using machines to pump water from the lake onto their plots, with most of them citing economic hardship as the main reason for their action.
Addressing the meeting, Mr Sebastian Bagina, Project Manager of the Tono Irrigation Scheme, emphasized the need for farmers to stay outside the 100-meter belt that serves as a protective boundary around the lake's reservoir.
He cautioned that continued agricultural activity near the lake-shore would increase the rate of erosion there and reduce the reservoir's water-holding capacity due to excessive siltation.
Mr Bagina said when the presence of farmers near the reservoir came to the notice of the ICOUR management, the latter made radio announcements on September 23, October 4, and October 5, urging them to withdraw from the area but all to no avail, hence the decision to convene the stakeholders' meeting.
"The life-blood of the irrigation scheme is water. Therefore, all stakeholders must be concerned about the water-holding capacity of the reservoir," said the Project Manager.
He indicated that in the 25 years of its existence, the Tono irrigation scheme had been of immense benefit to residents of Navrongo and the Upper East Region as a whole, and asked farmers not to sacrifice the sustainability of the scheme for short-term gain.
The Kassena-Nankana District Chief Executive (DCE), Mr Emmanuel Chegeweh, described the forum as important and timely, saying that safeguarding the sustainability of the Tono irrigation facility was a collective responsibility of all stakeholders.
He said government for its part had sunk a huge sum of money into the rehabilitation of the scheme to enable the people of the area to farm all year round.
The only contribution they the farmers could also make would be to cease all farming activity near the dam's reservoir, as directed by the project management.
"If you want to benefit today by destroying the dam, how would your own children and grandchildren survive tomorrow?" he queried rhetorically.
The DCE announced that the Assembly in conjunction with ICOUR had so far given out about 3,400 mango seedlings to farmers at the Tono irrigation site for transplanting, saying it would help protect the environment within the dam's catchment area.
He urged farmers to join Village Committees in their localities to enable them to access credit facilities.
Earlier in a welcoming address, Mr Thomas Sumbo, Deputy Managing Director of ICOUR, urged stakeholders present to attach the utmost importance to deliberations held at the forum, and to spread the message when they got back to their communities.
When the floor was opened for contributions, some of the participants contended that farmers had already invested money in the cultivation of several hectares of vegetables in the prohibited area.
They appealed to the ICOUR management to allow them to stay there till their crops were ready for harvesting.
The farmers unanimously conceded that moving into the reservoir's catchment area was improper but that they were compelled by the closure of the main irrigation project area due to ongoing rehabilitation works, coupled with the fact that most of them needed money to repair their houses damaged during the just-ended rainy season.
The chief of Kajelo community near Paga, Pe Damwopagani Awia, and the chief of Gia, Pe James Addi, appealed to the Government and the district assembly to provide small-scale dams and dugouts in the local communities as alternative sources of water to ease the pressure on the Tono irrigation facility.
Alhaji Issah Bukari, Managing Director of ICOUR, who chaired the function, turned down appeals for consideration by farmers who had cropped within the prohibited area, insisting that all those involved should quit the area immediately.
"If we allow you to continue, more farmers would surge into the reservoir area between now and December, and the entire Tono irrigation scheme would collapse soon because by then, the environment around it would nave been degraded."
The Managing Director likened ICOUR's stance on the issue to a bitter pill but said it was necessary to safeguard both the sustainability of the project and the long-term economic prosperity of the people of the area.