Building water infrastructure such as dams contributes to economic development, food, and energy security depending on their objective. In developing countries it is often seen as the most cost effective way to increase electricity production and irrigated agriculture. However, reaching these national objectives can often come at a cost to nature and local livelihoods which depend on healthy ecosystems. Modified river flows change the timing, quantity and quality of water flowing downstream. Yet, these constantly changing river flows are essential for livelihoods dependent on flood recession farming, floodplain cattle grazing, and fish production.
Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) calls for balanced development. This is difficult when national food and energy priorities impact local livelihoods and ecosystem services. Is it right that local and invariably poor people have to pay the price for national economic development? The argument for hydropower for economic development is valid, but natural infrastructure and the local benefits they provide should not be neglected in development planning and climate change adaptation strategies.
Under the ‘WISE-UP to Climate’ project the assumption is that built infrastructure and its benefits are well documented and understood, whereas natural infrastructure is less well understood and the benefits are harder to quantify. Through work led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), WISE-UP aims to quantify the benefits from natural infrastructure in the Volta basin so that it can be considered within the same decision-making framework as built infrastructure.
The Volta River basin is shared between six countries in West Africa and crosses a wide range of eco-climatic zones, from dry Sahelian climate in the north to humid tropical climate in the South. The monsoon climate and the generally flat basin contributes to large scale seasonal flooding, providing water for flood recession farming and riparian fishing. IWMI’s work has focused on the proposed Pwalugu dam area in the North of Ghana, close to the Burkina Faso border. The proposed dam is a good example of built infrastructure conceived to contribute to Ghana’s economic and development needs through hydropower generation and to minimize destructive flooding. However, it will also have local impact on the natural infrastructure that supports rural livelihoods, and downstream river flows.
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