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Akosombo Hydroelectric Project, Ghana

The biggest hydroelectricity project in West Africa from the 1960s, for aluminum exports, created the Volta lake displacing 80,000 farmers to build a national idea of "development"


The Akosombo Dam, also known as the Akosombo Hydroelectric Project, is a hydroelectric dam on the Volta River in southeastern Ghana in the Akosombo gorge and part of the Volta River Authority. Originally designed in the 1920s to serve the British metropole, the Volta River Project was reshaped by the country’s founding leader Kwame Nkrumah in the 1950s. The revised project included a hydroelectric dam, an aluminum smelter to process Ghanaian mined bauxite, new cities, a deep sea harbor, and other infrastructural investments. The project became central to a modernization program that promised rapid industrialization and reducing the country’s dependence on cocoa exports. The development of the Volta River Basin was finally proposed in 1949; however, because there were insufficient funds, the American company Volta Aluminum Company (Valco) loaned money to Ghana so that the dam could be constructed. The primary purpose of the Akosombo Dam was in fact to provide electricity for the aluminium industry, which within Ghana was dependent upon the proposed hydroelectric power. The final proposal outlined the building of an aluminum smelter at Tema, a dam constructed at Akosombo to power the smelter, and a network of power lines installed through southern Ghana. The aluminum smelter was expected to eventually provide the revenue necessary for establishing local bauxite mining and refining, which would allow aluminum production without importing foreign alumina. The proposed project's aluminum smelter was overseen by the American company, Kaiser Aluminum, and is operated by Valco. The smelter received its financial investment from Valco shareholders, with the support of the Export-Import Bank of Washington, D.C. However, Valco did not invest without first requiring insurances from Ghana's government, such as company exemptions from taxes on trade and discounted purchases of electricity. According to Miescher, "The Volta scheme is an excellent prism to reconstruct how a large dam became not just the engine for the imagined transformation of Ghana during Africa’s era of decolonization but also a vehicle for multiple actors with competing agendas within the Cold War context."[1]. In the postwar period, new players arrived on the scene of development. In addition to the imperial powers, the United States and the USSR, as well as Germany and the Scandinavian countries became sponsors of development. Others included international organizations, particularly the United Nations and the World Bank, and multinational corporations like the global aluminum industry. The dam was finally built between 1961 and 1965, after Nkrumah’s government came to power in 1951 and moved the Volta project to the center of its modernization agenda of his country. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the famed New Deal project launched by President Roosevelt in 1933, became a model of how the Volta scheme could transform the country.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Akosombo Hydroelectric Project, Ghana
State or province:Eastern Region
Location of conflict:Asuogyaman District
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral processing
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Land
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Akosombo Dam was called "the largest single investment in the economic development plans of Ghana." Its original electrical output was 912 megawatts, which was upgraded to 1,020 megawatts (for comparison, the power of a large nuclear reactor) in a retrofit project that was completed in 2006.

Project area:8,500 ha flooded
Level of Investment for the conflictive project258,000,000 [in the '60s]
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:80,000 families
Company names or state enterprises:Volta Aluminum Company (VALCO) from Ghana
Kaiser Aluminum from United States of America
Salini Impregilo from Italy
Relevant government actors:All ministers were somehow involved, as Asokombo is the major hydroelectric project in the country.
Volta River Authority
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank (ESCAMP ,WB) from United States of America
International Bank For Reconstruction And Development (IBRD)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Forms of mobilization:Media based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsEarthquakes
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsThe physical health of local communities has been diminished from this loss of shellfish populations, as they provided an essential source of dietary protein. The actual presence of aquatic weed along the lake and within the tributaries has resulted in even greater detriment to local human health. The weeds provide the necessary habitat for black-fly, mosquitoes and snails, which are the vectors of water-borne illnesses such as bilharzia, river blindness and malaria, but also HIV and schistosomiasis.
Invasive species such as the blackfly vastly breed in the area, causing illnesses such as river blindness [3]
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Migration/displacement
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:After so many decades since its construction, Asokombo is an worldwide relevant example of how resettlement programs of whatever kind for such mega-projects are just not viable and have in fact never worked. Increase in diseases, plus health and environmental vulnerability of the area speak for itself. The electricity has been large for export in the form of aluminum.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] “Nkrumah’s Baby”: the Akosombo Dam and the dream of development in Ghana, 1952–1966; Stephan F. Miescher, in Water History December 2014, Volume 6, Issue 4, pp 341-366
[click to view]

[2] World Bank - Resettlement and development : the Bankwide review of projects involving involuntary resettlement 1986-1993
[click to view]

[3] Patrick McCully, Silenced Rivers
[click to view]

Hilton, T. (1966). AKOSOMBO DAM AND THE VOLTA RIVER PROJECT. Geography, 51(3), 251-254
[click to view]

[click to view]

International Rivers - Ghana Dams Dialogue: Focus on Affected People
[click to view]

Ghana web - History of Akosombo dam
[click to view]

The Volta River Basin and the Akosombo Dam - Center for Columbia River History,
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Daniela Del Bene ICTA-UAB
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2218
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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