SAKOM, GHANA – Throughout the rainy season of 1999, the villagers here watched helplessly as the dam filled and seepages grew into leaks, and they knew it was only a matter of time before the rising waters would burst.

They delayed that moment by patching gaps and holes with heavy stones and ten bags of concrete. But the scale of the task was too large for them to prevent the inevitable.  When the section of the dam gave way at 3 a.m. one morning in October 1999, no one was living downstream, no lives were lost, no one was hurt. Still, the natural glue that had held everyone together – water – soon vanished and they felt helpless to bring it back.

The dam had been built by the government of Ghana in 1965 as a political gift to the region from above. The patronage helped them grow three crops a year: onions and tomatoes in the dry season, rice in the summer rainy season, more vegetables in the fall. People used water in local brick building. They caught fish year round. Trade grew as distant villages brought cattle to drink from the dam. For three decades the ‘tingana,’ or land owners evolved a complex system of land tenure and canals under the chieftainship.  

Yet no one seemed to know who exactly owned the dam. After the celebration and ribbon cutting, Ghana had shrugged off subsequent problems to the hands of the community.

It was not clear who was in charge, who was in control,” said George Ngiba, the local assemblyman’s representative. “People thought, ‘Ah, if it belongs to government, then it belong to everyone,’ and if everyone owns it then no one takes responsibility for it.”

Within months of its collapse, people were forced to travel far and wide to find available water in the dry season. Some moved to the distant river, others fled to cities. Leaders asked various departments to help repair the breach, but public funds were scarce. The village began to implode, and putting added stress on water resource use elsewhere.

As the urgency of the situation grew, a few villagers heard about a trans-boundary water governance project led by the Zuuri Organic Farmer’s Association (ZOFA) and the ‘Projet d’Amélioration de la Gouvernance de l’Eau dans le bassin de la Volta (PAGEV).

There were obstacles, but not insurmountable ones. The dam was not on the White Volta or even a minor tributary. And IUCN, a key driver, was primarily a conservation organization, not a poverty alleviation or hydraulic engineering firm. 

Yet PAGEV sought to generate capacity and a sense of ownership among water users and managers throughout the basin, from the ground up. “We sought to build trust, based on more than words and talk, talk, talk,” said Aaron Aduna, White Volta Basin Officer. “We were looking to measure progress and gain credibility among stakeholders.

So with PAGEV funds, the villagers rehabilitated their dam. But they did not repeat the mistakes of the dam’s birth. This time, the community took ownership from the start.

“Community consultations and forums were organized,” said Ngiba, “including all the stakeholders: the land owners, assemblyman, the chief, and even women are part of it. So it was a collective will, not autocratic authority. We look and listen and comment one by one by one, so decision-making is democratic.”

And if the dam were to fail again in another few years? The villagers say they are preparing for that eventuality; they are taking steps to get a bylaw allowing those who are working and benefiting from the water every season will contribute something.. 

It is small, small, small amount,” said Ngiba, “but enough so we have something reasonable and save it in the bank. So if there is maintenance, we will not look for others, to foreign NGOs, to the District Assembly, or other citizens to help. We can take part of our contribution and put it into the maintenance ourselves.

The laws are not yet fixed in place, but accountability has been. Asked who owns the dam, the villagers answer: “We do.”
Written by Jamie Workman