BOLGATANGA, GHANA – Ignorance was not bliss. Not when a population of 18 million people expanding at 2.5% a year increasingly demanded more and more water from the Volta River basin to drink, farm, flush, scrub, fish and water their cattle.

The Red and White Volta tributaries dry up from December to April. Thirsty, hungry people lacked information about why. Ignorance bred stress. Ignorance bred conflict. 

Since the mid 1990s, there were serious problems,” recalled Aaron Aduna, White Vota Basin Officer for Ghana’s Water Resources Commission. “During floods, Ghana accused Burkina of opening dams. During drought, they were accused of storing all the water.” 

The same accusations flew within nations. Downstream fishermen resented upstream villages which in turn seethed at dams further upstream for sending power and pipes to cities which complained of pollution from farmers who, in turn, said the river is silting from cattle and shrinking from climate change brought on by the industrialized West.

Everyone kept pointing fingers but no one had an answer,” said Kwame Odame Ababio, project coordinator for PAGEV, which saw the lack of information and communication.

The first step was to generate reliable data about a water balance in the river: who used how much of what water when and where? The second task aimed to ensure all parties shared and came to agree on it, across borders. “The problem,” said Aduna, “was that information generated at the top generally stay at the top, and does no good there.

So PAGEV aimed series of workshops at the local communities. It set out to rehabilitate stream measuring tools and the data collection process. But mostly it set out to talk, and more importantly, listen, about peoples’ needs. 

When we started they received us as a way of being polite,” said Aduna. “Not like they really believed what we were saying, but as we continued, and invited them to attend meetings organized by the project, and they heard of our contributions, they got more interested, then implementation, their trust increased. Not 100 percent as of now, but people saw we were actually doing something on the ground, and they decided to do something about it and go along with us.” 

One particularly effective communication tool was Canadian Viasat satellite mapping and aerial photographs, which could magnify to show trees, wells, fire scars, 500-1,000 small earth dams, and changes over time. People saw photos of the river’s past, its present, and what the future could look like, “notably the survival of trees planted on the riverbanks,” said Ababio. “They saw how they fit into the picture, right where they lived.”

Dam rehabilitation, planting of mangoes, data collection and a water audit all generated and consolidated awareness. Their knowledge was shared by word of mouth, through community based forums and even the public via another tool: quarterly radio broadcasts.  

We have a regional program, in three languages, to sensitize the whole community on how we are all trying to protect the White Volta river basin,” said Peter Mbaune, a project animator for ZOFA. “We reach people up to 25 km from the river who are involved in water bodies so we can all join hands. All year round. People call in from cell phones, using their precious credits, hoping to become beneficiary members of the program. We have to explain it is only a pilot, and we want to see if it can succeed.

A third tool involved integration of meteorological services readings over time. That allowed decision-makers to separate local negative hydraulic impacts of land use or dam operations from the background of a drying and changing climate.

But feedback from the communities was most critical, for “validation” of abstract measurements. “The information we get from them lets us know how much groundwater or surface water we have, and we carry that up to parliament, where the final decision rests with politicians,” said Aduna. 

The data and information sharing, from the bottom up, eventually went into preparation of a water audit. Now we know what we actually have, in terms of water flows. So at last we can seek collaborative advice on how to use it.

The flow of words restored the flow of dialogue. The storm calmed. Wisdom was bliss.
Written by Jamie Workman