Hippos in the front line

Posted on 01 February 2000

A looming energy crisis in Ghana has prompted the government to announce construction of a new dam in one of the country's national parks but it may have to think again as environmentalists unite to reveal the serious threat posed by the dam to some of the world's most endangered wildlife species
Accra, Ghana: Several species of endangered wildlife, including the black African hippopotamus, elephants and butterflies, are facing an additional threat to their survival as Ghana prepares to build a new dam in the Bui National Park some 450 kilometres northwest of the capital.

The announcement of the dam project earlier this year reflects Ghana's growing problems of energy supply. The country's main source of electricity has been the Akosombo dam, built in 1966 by its first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, with some support from the United States. But the water level in the dam is now so low because of drought that it has lost almost half its generating capacity, forcing the present government to look for other sources of energy. The Bui plan has prompted calls for a national debate on the environmental consequences of the new dam.

Environmentalists say Ghana's people � especially those living in the Bui area � must be allowed to make an informed decision about whether they want the dam or the park. Recently a workshop on the subject was organized in the country's second largest city, Kumasi, by the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR) of the local University of Science and Technology, with support from the European Union. Participants argued that since tourism is a leading foreign exchange earner for the country, a treasure such as the Bui park should not be sacrificed for hydro power.

A "Save the Bui Park" campaign is already under way, although the plan has apparently been approved by the government and a British building consortium is about to start work. The campaign coordinator, Mike Anane, told the Kumasi workshop not only would some 2,500 people have to be moved to make way for the dam, but also that studies showed a greater portion of the park would be submerged than had previously been estimated. Anane says that of the 440 square kilometres of the lake formed by the dam 383 will be in the National Park.

Anane believes construction of the dam would lead to the spread of diseases such as bilharzia and malaria as a result of the stagnant pool that would be created. He says the people who will suffer most � those living close to the lake � are unaware of its likely consequences because of the high level of illiteracy in the country. Only about 40 per cent of Ghana's 18 million population is educated.

"They have been told that the construction of the dam will generate employment opportunities for them and that is all they are looking forward to," Anane said.

In addition, Bui is home to a variety of wildlife species already threatened with extinction. "The National Park is the natural habitat for some of the rarest species and plants which are being protected worldwide," Anane says. "The survival of these species is linked to the survival of humans."

Significantly, the World Bank � which is said to have supported construction of the Akosombo dam, is not involved in the Bui project. That might reflect negative environmental consequences, according to one of the bank's natural resource management specialists, Dr Edward Dwumfuor.

"It is within a reserve that stretches to Cote d'Ivoire," Dwumfuor said. "The World Bank has environmental policies now, and so long as the project is going to have adverse environmental effects the bank will not fund it."

The deputy director of IRNR, Dr Ernest Abeney, says Ghanaians should be allowed to make choices as to whether the park should be maintained or partially destroyed. Others believe the government should consider other energy sources, such as solar power and biogas. Ghana has abundant sunshine and millions of tonnes of liquid waste.

But the Chief Wildlife Officer of the Department of Game and Wildlife, Nick Ankudey, refutes claims that construction of the dam would have adverse effects on wildlife. He says the Bui plan dates back to the days immediately following Ghana's achievement of independence, and that it would have already been built but for the coup that overthrew the Nkrumah government.

According to Ankudey, the endangered black hippos environmentalists claim might suffer if the dam was built live upstream and would not be affected. "It will be an opportunity and a challenge for the Game and Wildlife Department of Ghana to have the chance to manage the anticipated lake, which will be surrounded almost completely by a protected area," Ankudey says.

Mike Anane is unimpressed. "Has the Wildlife Department been able to manage similar protected areas in the country?" he asks. "The catchment areas around the Akosombo dam, the Owabi river in the Ashanti region and the Kakum National Park in the central region are there for all to see: poaching, farming, building developments, logging, refuse dumps, taxi ranks and chop bars."

There are signs, however, that the government taking account of the growing anxiety over the Bui plan. The chairman on the responsible Cabinet committee, Victor Selormey, told journalists recently that the World Bank had been approached for support, and that "we have written to several donors to ask for help in assessing the impact of what is being proposed." He said the government wanted the dam to be constructed "in a sustainable manner � looking critically at the environmental impact."

(870 words)

*Isabella Gyau is a Ghanaian environmental journalist working in Accra