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19.05.2012 Opinion

Volta Lake Settlers: Caught In A Development Paradox

By Daily Guide
An abandoned Silo at Kpong Farm and erosion at AmedekaAn abandoned Silo at Kpong Farm and erosion at Amedeka
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The relevance of the Akosombo and Kpong hydro-electric power plants on the Volta Lake cannot be overemphasized when cataloguing the factors that have helped transform the Ghanaian economy to its present gleaming status. Yet, while the country revels in the opportunities presented by electricity, indigenous communities around the Volta basin are caught in an economic destitution that threatens their very existence, Raphael Adeniran writes.

The lower peripherals of the Volta Lake run down the edge of several towns and villages, including Torgorme, a small community in the North Tongu District of the Volta Region. As the sun sets, mild river current splashes water gracefully on the banks where young David Megbeawotor and his playmates are washing their feet after trudging almost six kilometers to pick a couple of measly mangoes.

Directly opposite Torgorme, on the other side of the lake, lies Amedeka, another small town bordering the Volta Lake and in the ebbing sunlight splashing gleefully in the river is Bright Aziebu, a 14 year-old Junior High School pupil who wants to become a medical doctor when he grows up. His counterpart in Torgome, David Megbeawotor, will like to be a mathematician.

For these boys, the prospect of emerging out of their villages as accomplished professionals is something worth working hard for. Apparently, David and Bright are oblivious to the perilous socio-economic quicksand that the people in the lower Volta Basin are caught in; the fact that they will have to grow up in this part of the country greatly reduces their chances of reaching their future ambitions.

What many people may not be aware of is that the people living in the lower Volta Basin have endured the harshest economic conditions in the country for more than 30 years. This predominantly agrarian and fishing society has watched helplessly as its soil is washed away by the perennial flooding caused by the damming of the lake and have had to get to terms with declining fish stocks due to the disruption of the lake's ecosystem.

'The people living downstream from the dam are all subjected to abject poverty, whereas the whole nation is benefiting from the hydro dam,' says Ebenezer Dzabaku, a native of Amedeka who was forced by the plight of his people to write a book in December 2011: 'The Volta River, Electric Power Generation and Poverty at the Crossroads'.

Suffering In Silence
Ebenezer Dzabaku, at one time, worked as an electrical engineer at Volta River Authority (VRA) but resigned to pursue various personal agenda, including mounting a crusade to expose the plight of the people of the Lower Volta Basin to the entire country.

His book paints a very bleak picture of the situation, particularly at the Lower Volta catchment area. Expectedly, the book has jolted the VRA to attention. VRA is the entity formed to manage the entire structure of the Volta River's resources and its development.

Mr. Dzabaku's preoccupation with the Lower Volta Basin, rather than the entire Volta Basin—upstream at Akosombo and downstream at Kpong—may strike a casual observer as odd. The facts are compelling: The Akosombo dam, which was built around 1961 and 1965, is at the upstream of the Volta Lake. Its construction displaced more than 80,000 farmers and the flooding from the dam's construction destroyed over 8,500 square kilometers of farmlands. But Ghana's first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, ensured that displaced indigenes were properly resettled and a comprehensive development plan was designed to give the people a second lease on their lives.

Akosombo and its resettlement area have been fairly developed because the VRA's actions are backed by legislation- the Volta Development Act, Act 46 of 1961.

The legislation compelled the VRA to develop the lakeside area for the health and well-being of the 'inhabitants, and the people living adjacent thereto'.

In fact, the VRA was to assume a local government and planning function at the Akosombo area. 'The Authority shall take measures to enhance the natural beauty of the lake side area by the planting of trees and otherwise; and shall be responsible for the development of the Akosombo township in a manner as to prevent the growth of slum or other conditions likely to be injurious to the health and well-being of the inhabitants,' says section 13 of the Act.

Indeed, all through the legislation, the focus is based on the upstream side of the lake. There is no perceptible mention of the downstream (Kpong Dam) side in the legislation, probably because Kpong was constructed after the legislation was enacted. Even after several amendments to the Act, Kpong seems to have been ignored.

The much younger Kpong dam, which was constructed in 1981, also displaced several thousands of people who faced resettlement crisis, unlike the upstream side (Akosombo). Because there is no specific legislation compelling the VRA to give the people a lease of life after they lost everything to the dam, the VRA uses its discretion.

Dzabaku is the general secretary of an advocacy group, the Akuse-Amedeka Citizens' Association. He told DAILY GUIDE that in the face of the extreme economic hardship faced by the people, his group will force for a legislative amendment that will capture the catchment area of the Kpong Dam. According to him, all efforts will be employed to force the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare to initiate an amendment move. If these efforts fail, they will have no option but to head for the courts.

There are over 18 traditional areas in the Lower Volta area, with a population exceeding 30,000 people. At the time of the construction, those who were directly affected by the dam numbered 7,000. These numbers have since multiplied over the past 30 years and the growing pressure on limited resources is increasingly causing agitations.

'Our entire livelihood is gone, we don't have anything to stand on to develop ourselves,' laments Augustine Kofi, a resident of Amedeka who survives by picking litters off the banks of the Volta from trash.

An indigenous group, known as Forest Green, made several plans to hit the streets to drum home their plights, but the Akuse-Amedeka Citizens' Association appealed to their sense of good judgment.

'Our goal is to be more flexible with government and the VRA to address the issue,' says Dzabaku.

In August 2010, the association petitioned the President, John Evans Atta Mills, for a special fund to be created for the Lower Volta area. The president acted on the petition and wrote to the Chief Executive of the VRA, Kweku Andoh Awotwi. However, the VRA has failed to consider the issues raised by the citizens, says Mr. Dzabaku.

'The VRA has not been informative- perhaps lending credence to perceptions that the VRA does not put value on the problems brought on the people by the Kpong hydroelectric dam,' he adds.

Earlier on, in 2005, several Members of Parliament around the deprived community raised their voices to seek redress for the downtrodden community.

D.T Assumeng, Parliamentarian from the Shai-Osudoku, B.D.K. Adu, MP for Okere constituency, C.S Hodogbey of the North Tongu constituency and Clement Kofi Humado of the Anlo constituency, among others, were all unanimous in their views of the need to pay more attention to the plights of the people of the Lower Volta Basin.

Ebenezer Dzabaku and Mrs Gertrude Koomson, Head of PR, VRA

The Minister of Energy at the time, Professor Mike Oquaye, noted the various observations and responded: 'This certainly will receive the appropriate attention. The Volta River Project is of immense importance to this country and we all take seriously matters related thereto.' The Minister alluded to the fact that the Act establishing the VRA should be given a second look. However, since 2005, nothing concrete has been done, says Mr. Dzabaku.

The Demands
Meanwhile, the people are making several demands that they believe will put them back on track. Among these demands include the need for further compensations; an initiation of alternative livelihood projects by both government and VRA; access to lands for farming and the revamping of certain collapsed industries such as the Kpong demonstration farm that stocked livestock, rice mills and meat processing plants.

For these people, the resuscitation of these projects will spark commercial activities in the area and stem poverty and its associated urban drift of its youthful population.

The Lower Volta people are also demanding basic social infrastructures in the area. For one thing, they need functional drainage system that will save them from the perennial flooding that threatens to wash their lands away.

They also need proper coastline protection mechanism; occasionally, the lake bursts its banks and head straight inland. The ensuing erosion creates significant discomfort for the people. A few of the buildings in both Togorme and Amedeka, for instance, have been washed away by erosion. 'We've never experienced this kind of erosion. If you look at our buildings, when you see them they are deteriorating. Some of them are about to fall down,' laments Christian Ananigo, an assembly man at Togorme.

The people feel they should get some preferences on electricity—probably free or subsidized electricity—due to their sacrifices and the proximity to the generating plant. Incidentally, the people are subject to paying the same bills as everybody else. Consequently, many people do not have access to electricity because of the cost components. 'We sacrificed the land for the construction of this dam but we are not the beneficiary of the dam,' complains Mr. Ananigo.

Gertrude Koomson, the head of Public Relations at VRA, thinks otherwise. 'What I can say is that natural resources are made available to all citizens: royalties may be paid to chiefs and communities, but electricity provision is a national issue,' she says.

'For us to give electricity to those who have given their lands and have already been compensated is like  people in Obuasi [Ghana's biggest Gold mining town] saying that you took our lands to mine, and so we deserve to be given some of the gold. So areas where there is no oil, there is no gold, there is no electricity in Ghana, what happens to them?' Mrs. Koomson asks.

'By the establishment of VRA, they are supposed to be a power generation company; they are not supposed to be engaged in the distribution of electricity. There is a national institution- the Electricity Company of Ghana- which distributes electricity to households. I think it will be very wrong for VRA to even be getting into that area of business,' says Emannuel Amelor of the VRA's environmental department.

'Most of the demands that you come across when you get to the communities are based on the fact that because the facilities are near them, they need special treatment. The moment we begin to comply with such demands, this country would be disintegrated. The common good must be shared equally because there are certain areas of the country which are not endowed with such facilities,' Mr. Amelor emphasizes.

The Paradox
In 1961, when the VRA was established, it was carved as an integrated development entity that generated power to sell and to manage other commercial subsidiaries. As a result of this mandate, the VRA set up hotels, schools, lake transport businesses, farms, agro-processing factories etc which would have transformed the lower basin enclave into an economically buoyant area.

In a 1977 feasibility report that served as the basis for the construction of the Kpong Dam, the drafters envisaged monumental transformation of the entire area.

'The presence of a modern hydroelectric station at Akuse [Kpong dam] will, in the long term, act as a catalyst for new enterprises to come into the area. This has already been demonstrated at Akosombo and sites of many hydroelectric plants throughout the world,' says page 88 of the summary of the Kpong Dam's 1977 feasibility.

But over 30 years down the line, the planned industries and projects have either collapsed or never materialized. The few, whose operations peaked years ago, are now totally dormant.

'Rice from that farm [Kpong Farms] was number one,' Mrs Koomson reminisces fondly.

At a later stage in the operation of VRA, government became aware that VRA was using its power generation resources to cross-subsidize these other subsidiaries.

Hence, in 2009, the regulator of the power sector, the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission (PURC), forced VRA to shed some of its businesses because they were not power related and were adding to the power generator's cost of operations.

'There are times that we produce power at 13 cents and we are forced to sell at 7 cents. In fact the electricity we are all enjoying is subsidized, that is the bottom line,' says Mrs. Koomson.

In its bid to conform to the new regime, promising entities such as the Kpong Farms, which hitherto created several jobs for people in the areas, were closed down. The Kpong Farms have been lying fallow for over 10 years now.

Socio-Economic Imbalance
Meanwhile, as the people wallow in poverty, they constantly make reference to a thriving VRA township a stone's throw away, which appears to be a utopia of sorts.

Perhaps, the locals are right to look up to this well-endowed VRA Township. Essentially, the mini town housing VRA staff comes with all the basic social amenities that a town could dream of: a good drainage system, good schools, constant flow of water and electricity, good roads etc.

Mr. Dzabaku believes the contrast is a form of apartheid. According to him, some people from the indigenous community foray into the VRA town to scavenge on leftovers and scraps, but are treated as intruders. 'The way VRA harasses and arrests the youth of the area, now they are becoming aggrieved and if nothing is done now, tomorrow would be too late,' Ebenezer Dzabaku complains.

'There are people who work in VRA who don't know Akuse and Amedeka communities. They live their township; go to Accra and work, whereas when it rains, the whole towns in the community are flooded.

'If they know that good roads and good buildings are good for them who are working on peoples land, what about the local people?' he asks.

'They are depriving the people of living in dignity. If this continues, one day the repercussion will be too bad for the nation,' warns the secretary of the Akuse-Amedeka Citizens' Association.

The People's Rights
All over the world, it is a general standard that when hydro projects of such magnitude are developed, the entities mandated to manage them have an obligatory right to do something to address the needs of the indigenous people whose livelihoods have been altered. 'Before major projects like this are done, the institutions managing them have a mandatory right to do something,' Mr. Dzabaku explains.

To him, the various interventions that VRA has made so far are meager hand-downs compared to what it should have been obliged to do for the people. 'It is using its corporate social responsibility to shirk its obligatory rights. We say that every hydro dam construction brings about so many negative effects all over the world. Because of that, governments make sure that prior studies are conducted to take the effects into consideration.'

Currently, the tussle between the locals at the Lower Volta Basin and the VRA is subtle, with all parties going strictly by the rules of engagement even though there has been a time lapse of 30 years. Now the people are coalescing into formal advocacy groups to discuss their plights. If the process drags on any longer, it is unclear what other actions the highly agitated people will take.

Youngsters like Bright Aziebu and David Megbeawotor, with such bright ambitions, are waiting in the wings to take over the struggle from the older generation. Perhaps, they may not need to struggle when the time comes. However, if the situation persists and they have to, would they be tolerant enough to toe the same subtle line that several generations before them have?

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