Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dam Nation

If there's one thing Ghana seems to love, it would have to be dams (...and football). Akosombo, the giant hydroelectric dam in the south, supplies the entire country with electricity, and restrains the world's largest artificial lake (Lake Volta). A new hydroelectric dam is being built, and will hopefully address the recent rolling blackouts.

Here in Kassena-Nankana, though, it's all about irrigation. The district has over 40 small-scale dams, and two large ones, which supply irrigation canals allowing farmers to grow crops during the dry season. The dams are also used for livestock and fishing. Dams have been in use here for a long time, and with good reason; the climate is defined by erratic rainfall and a very long dry season (about to begin in October).

One important way of looking at reducing poverty in northern Ghana is by promoting "Agriculture as a Business". By assisting farmers in moving from subsistence farming (keeping most of what you grow for your family's meals) to income-based farming (selling more crops on the market), the extreme vulnerability of subsistence farming can be reduced.

Farmers primarily grow staple cereal crops (maize, millet, sorghum, rice) during the rainy season, often for sustenance. In the dry season, however, vegetables can be grown on the irrigated land, and sold on the market. Every time a farmer can turn a profit growing vegetable crops in the dry season, that extra cash makes him or her a little less vulnerable to how the next rainy season plays out. It also affords more opportunities, such as sending children to higher levels of education.

I'm currently working on a report assessing the profitability and risks of three of the main dry season vegetable crops: tomatoes, onions and hot peppers (or "peypey" as they're called here). To get some data, I visited Tono Dam, the largest dam in the district (and the biggest of its kind in West Africa, from some accounts).

I was struck by just how massive Tono is; not having seen a decent-sized body of water since leaving Canada, the lake seemed to stretch out forever. Tono Dam spans a distance of 2 kilometres, and irrigates a total area of 2500 hectares. The irrigation canal winds its way through 9 villages. The spillway has been flowing for almost a month due to the rains; luckily, the water level is far below what it was at the height of the floods, when the spillway threatened to overflow (a situation which would have been disastrous for the surrounding villages).

The flowing spillway might be evidence of a harsh rainy season, but it's good news for fishermen. Anyone can pay for a seasonal contract to fish with nets on the lake. When the spillway's flowing, though, all you have to do is wait for the fish to come to you. There's been a lot of good tilapia in Navrongo market lately.

This was also the first day I took out my camera since I got to Ghana. On top of the fact that I'm not exactly a star photographer, snapping pictures can be difficult here. It can send the wrong impression, and when you ask strangers if you can take their pictures, they'll often refuse. One picture I took of some recently caught fish set off a minor incident when the woman cleaning the fish thought that I wanted to include her in the photograph. Luckily, Felix (the father of my Ghanaian family and my guide to the dam) was able to explain the situation.