Environmental concerns as Ghana's Bui Dam starts construction

By Richard High04 December 2008

Amid protests over its environmental impact on the Bui National Park, Ghana's President John Agyekum Kufuor led a ceremony yesterday to divert the flow of the Black Volta River as construction of the 400 MW Bui Dam hydroelectric power (HEP) project started.

Preparations for the diversion of the Black Volta, or Mouhoun River started in August 2007. This week's ceremony marked the end of Phase 1 of the Bui Dam HEP, which is situated in the Bui Gorge in the country's Bui National Park.

Construction of the US$ 622 million dam, spillway, power intake and powerhouse will now start with power generation expected in 2012. While Ghana's Government is spending US$ 60 million on developing the dam, the majority of the cost is being met by China's government-backed Sino Hydro.

Speaking at the ceremony, President Kufuor, who also chairs the Bui Power Authority, said construction of the dam and Bui City - home to a proposed 500000 people - would be "one of the biggest legacies" of his eight years as president.

Besides power generation the dam will also irrigate 30000 ha of land for agricultural development.

While President Kufuor's government have been keen to stress the economic benefits the dam will bring, many environmental agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have expressed concern its construction will result in the loss of many fragile eco-systems and endangered species.

According to the World Rainforest Movement (WRM), on completion it would flood an estimated quarter of the Bui National Park's 1800 km2, completely destroying the rare Black Hippopotamus' habitat and affect a large number of other native wildlife species, including fish, butterflies, birds and primates. It would also require the forced resettlement of thousands of people.

The WRM says the region is no stranger to displacement and epidemic. In 1965, 80000 farmers were displaced due to the construction of the Akosombo dam, which at the time flooded more land than any other HEP project in Africa - about 8500 km2. This led to outbreaks of malaria, bilharzias, and other water-borne diseases. Between 1978 and 1981, the Kpong dam displaced 6000 people, causing resettlement conflicts.

A report by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), quotes an anonymous source as saying that contrary to widely held beliefs by advocates of the dam that hippopotamus and other endangered species in the park will be relocated when construction of the dam begins, Ghana's game and wildlife department cannot afford the cost of capturing and moving the animals and relocating them to "safe havens."

Conservationists interviewed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) contend the hippopotami and other wildlife cannot survive outside the Bui National Park because of its unique nature.

University of Aberdeen, UK bilologist Daniel Bennett, who was banned from entering Ghana in March 2001, said the Bui National Park is believed to be the last fragment of pristine wilderness in the entire Volta system. Mr Bennett, who had been conducting research in the Park since 1996, said that if the dam were built, its rich flora and fauna would disappear, and the feeding grounds of the hippopotami would be destroyed, forcing them to move north of the park into inhabited areas in search of food.

If such a situation occurred, said Mr Bennett, there might be "no choice but to destroy the vast majority of them in the interests of people's safety."

"The intention seems to be to ensure nothing challenges the results of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the Bui Dam Project. An assessment paid for by the organization constructing the dam does not constitute an acceptable level of research if the area is to be destroyed," said Mr Bennett.

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