Akosombo Dam: An Investment in, or an Exploitation of, a Developing Country?

This is the text version of my video essay on Akosombo Dam


Construction of Akosombo hydroelectric dam started in 1961 in the Republic of Ghana. Upon completion in 1965 the dam formed Lake Volta, the largest man made body of water on earth covering 3.6% of Ghana’s land mass (Fobil, 2008). There are many pros and cons to the dam; while some argue the economic benefits to Ghana are indispensable, others claim the damage done to the communities in and around the flooded areas is inexcusable and that foreign investors took advantage of Ghana’s economic instability in order to secure cheap electricity for their ventures. In this essay I will be looking at the benefits and consequences of the dam – environmental, social, political, and economic.

Politics and Economics:

Seeing a hydroelectric dam as a means to propel Ghana into prosperity, Prime Minister  Kwame Nkrumah adopted the Akosombo Dam project in the late 1950s. The full plan involved not only the construction of the dam, but the construction of an electric smelter in Tema, to refine Ghana’s Bauxite deposits into aluminium using electricity generated by the dam. To raise the necessary funds – around £230 million (Ghana Web, n.d.) – Nkrumah consulted US president Eisenhower in March 1958, who advised him to seek investment from private American companies. From there Nkrumah met with Edger Kaiser of Kaiser Aluminum, who agreed to build the aluminium smelter upon negotiating an incredibly low price for electricity from Akosombo Dam, and to pay no tax on imports or exports. Now all that was left for Nkrumah was to secure the funds for the dam itself, roughly half the total sum. This came in the form loans from World Bank, a loan UK government, and the remainder in US ‘foreign aid’.

Late in negotiation, however, Kaiser made it clear that they would not be using Ghana’s bauxite supply, as Nkrumah had assumed, and would be importing bauxite for smelting, depriving Ghanaians of jobs in the mining industry and Ghana’s government from that industry’s taxation. This was claimed to be due to the low quality of the ore, however Kaiser later admitted to another reason; they feared, if they were entirely reliant on Ghana, the aluminium industry would one day be nationalised (Kwame Nkrumah Building the Akosombo Dam and the Cold War, 2013). Furthermore, in the midst of the Cold War, the US began using their investment as a means to negate Nkrumah’s socialist ideals – going so far Nkrumah spoke on the matter at the UN in 1960, stating ‘a desperate attempt is being made … to extend the cold war to Africa’ and exclaiming ‘the UN must not let this happen’ (Kwame Nkrumah Building the Akosombo Dam and the Cold War, 2013). Despite all this, Nkrumah knew it was the only way this project was going to happen, and construction started in 1961. Once operational, the dam supplied power to Kaiser’s aluminium smelter, as well as providing 70% of domestic electricity, which at the time was less than 20% of the dam’s capacity (R.C.E.E.A.R., 2005).

As demand for electric soared within the Ghana, going from around 540GWh to 1,300GWh per year between 1967 and 1976 (R.C.E.E.A.R., 2005), and the price of electricity rose in west Africa, resentment for VALCO (the Ghanaian subdivision of Kaiser Aluminum operating the smelter) built as they continued to pay little for the electricity they used. In 1983 Jerry Rawlings, president by military coup – the seventh since Nkrumah’s fall, in 1966 – assembled a team with the aim of extracting more money from VALCO, and finally lifting Ghana out of their post-independence debt. Rawlings’ team eventually filed for the long feared nationalisation of the aluminium smelter, though they knew this could only be a threat. Due to impeccable timing with a draught that allowed Volta River Authority (the government utility managing the dam) to halt the electricity supply to VALCO until they thought it safe, VALCO were forced to increase their prices or stop production (Kwame Nkrumah Building the Akosombo Dam and the Cold War, 2013).

Today Ghana’s economy is also twice the average of the West African sub region (World Bank, 2017) and consistently invites industry due to low-cost hydroelectric power. Moreover, in years of drought, when hydroelectric generation has been at its lowest, unemployment rates have risen drastically, attesting to Akosombo Dam’s positive impact on Ghana’s economy.

Human Welfare:

The first major issue was the relocation of some 80,000 inhabitants of the Volta River Basin, just over 1% Ghana’s population at the time. The inhabitants were given two options; to be paid compensation and relocate themselves or to be relocated by the government, and over 90% of the people chose the latter (Girmay, 2006). The resettlement of people from 740 small villages to 52 larger ones proved disastrous, causing issues in communication between the eight different ethnic groups resettled – each of whom had their own dialect and unique cultural practises. In addition to this, of those who were promised compensation for loss of property, 69% of people surveyed in 2006 said they had not received any (Girmay, 2006).

The influx of male workers during the construction of the dam, coupled with the collapse of rural economies and the instability of the nation’s economy, resulted in an increase in women finding work in prostitution, and in turn HIV became a prominent issue in the districts west and south of Akosombo Dam – with an infection rate over four times that of the nation’s average (14.1% compared to 3% for the country) (Suave, 2002).

Lake Volta itself has also contributed to many heath issues. Due to an increase in the population of water-born vectors, like mosquitoes, there has been a 10% raise in malaria cases both north and south of the dam, and a notable increase in many other diseases. On the other hand, the second dam built in the Volta River Basin, Kpong Dam, created a reservoir that encapsulated much of the fast flowing water in the area, thus destroying the breeding grounds for Blackfly and curtailing the spread of River Blindness (Girmay, 2006).

Several factors have resulted in lower crop yields and, in turn, higher rates malnourishment within communities reliant on local produce. These factors include: the acute control of the water level within Lake Volta, for the safety of the dam, stopping periodic flooding of the agricultural land in the Volta River Basin, thus interrupting the natural deposition of sediment that previously fertilised the land; and a failure of communication between farmers and the appropriate authorities leaving the dam’s capacity for irrigation largely unutilised.


At the time of the dam’s construction long-term environmental consequences were not given serious consideration in any of the reports by Kaiser Aluminum, or by Impregilo – the firm responsible for the construction of the dam – as economic factors were given overwhelming priority. However, some of these issues have already proved to be financially detrimental; the hastened erosion of the nearby coastlines, due to the lack of sediment making its way to the mouth of the Volta River, has forced the implementation of a project to fortify the coast of Togo, costing £2.8 million for each kilometre protected (Pottinger, 1996). Sandbars at the mouth of the Volta River have also became a problem; before the construction of the dam seasonal floods cleared the estuary of sandbars, but today the Volta River Authority regularly dredge the channel to ensure the sandbars do not inhibit the natural flow of the river – an additional unforeseen expense.

Finally, research done in association with International Rivers has shown the formation of large reservoirs can produce high levels of methane and carbon dioxide, due to the decomposition of organic matter within the reservoir. This is an issue particularly prevalent in tropical regions, due to the faster decomposition of the organic matter; and in dams with a reservoir shallow in proportion to its surface area, as the amount of electricity generated is proportional to the capacity of the reservoir, and large surface area of the lake allows for faster diffusion of greenhouse gasses – resulting in higher emissions per unit of electricity generated (International Rivers, n.d.). Akosombo Dam falls victim to both these issues.


Though one can argue Ghana – by building the dam – have created something detrimental to the environment, and to themselves particularly, we aught to be asking why they have been forced to take such desperate measures. Ghana is one of the most stable and prosperous west-African nations, yet they are only now beginning to invest in less damaging renewable energy – like solar and wind power. The responsibility for protecting the environment comes after protecting the interests of your country; if one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the USA, still uses less than 15% renewable electricity including hydro-power (EIA, 2016), why should one expect Ghana to do any better?

Today the negative impacts of Akosombo Dam are actively minimised. The Volta River Authority have several programs in place to use a proportion of their profits for the benefit of the people effected by the project, including; afforestation programs, an annual commitment of £400,000 to their ‘Resettlement Trust Fund’ to support development initiatives in the resettlement towns, and ‘free specialist and general medical care to communities along the Volta Lake accessible only by boat’ (Volta River Authority, 2016).

Ghana as a nation has made good use of the initial exploitative investment, and the Ghanaian government are taking responsibility for their short cut to easily accessible electricity. Though there are plans for more hydro-electric dams in the Volta River Basin, the amount of research conducted into the original project by Ghanaian intellectuals – relating to human and environmental welfare – shows a definite interest infrastructure technology that regards the factors overlooked when planning Akosombo Dam.


AFRICAN ELECTIONS DATABASE. (2012, November 24). Elections in Ghana. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from AFRICAN ELECTIONS DATABASE.

Barry, B., Obuobie, E., Andreini, M., Andah, W., & Pluquet, M. (2005). Comparative study of river basin development and management. IWMI (Internation Water Management Institute).

Fobil, J. N. (2008, March 03). Remediation Of The Environmental Impacts Of The Akosombo And Kpong Dams In Ghana. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from HORIZON SOLUTIONS SITE.

Ghana Web. (n.d.). History of Akosombo dam. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from Ghana Web: http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/history/akosombo_dam.php

Ghana Web. (n.d.). Political History of Ghana. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from Ghana Web: http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/republic/polit_hist.php

Girmay, Y. ( 2006). Assessing the Environmental Impacts of a Hydropower Project: The case of Akosombo/Kpong Dams in Ghana. Stockholm.

International Rivers. (n.d.). Reservoir Emissions. Retrieved January 23, 2017, from International Rivers: https://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/reservoir-emissions

Kwame Nkrumah Building the Akosombo Dam and the Cold War (2013). [Motion Picture].

Pottinger, L. (1996, October 01). Environmental Impacts of Large Dams: African examples. Retrieved January 23, 2017, from International Rivers: https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/environmental-impacts-of-large-dams-african-examples-2029

R.C.E.E.A.R. (2005). Guide to Electric Power in Ghana (First ed.). Accra: Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research.

Suave, N. A. (2002). Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 402-408.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2009, October 06). Kwame Nkrumah. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from Encyclopædia Britannica.

Volta River Authority. (2016). Profile of the Volta River Authority. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from Volta River Authority: http://www.vra.com/about_us/profile.php

World Bank. (2017, January 22). Ghana GDP, USD. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?end=2015&locations=GH&start=2015&view=map&year=1960&year_high_desc=false

EIA. (2016). Table 1.1. Net Generation by Energy Source: Total (All Sectors), 2006-November 2016. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from EIA: http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_1_1


The original text from the video essay can be viewed here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0lt_aBJMUUHQnNBLWdoeFp2Wmc/view?usp=sharing

Some extra footage from the film I scanned can be seen here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0lt_aBJMUUHNFB0bzRtZEthd00

An uncompressed (less compressed) version of the video essay can be downloaded here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0lt_aBJMUUHWVJnZHprVFlhU2c


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