|Climate Change Turning the Lights Out on Ghana|
by Darrell Harvey
John Choba draws small dots on a large graph sheet posted on the wall of his office. Choba, the public relations officer for Ghana’s power authority, keeps track of the water level at the Akosombo dam every day. The dam holds back Lake Volta – the largest man-made lake in the world – and normally produces eighty percent of Ghana's electricity. These days just two of the plant's six turbines are spinning; there simply is not enough water in the lake to keep them all going.
Choba points to the line that represents this year’s water levels. The line curves sharply downward. Average levels in Lake Volta have been declining since the dam was completed in 1965, but this year is on track to be the worst.
"If I said I am not worried, I would be lying," says Choba. "Everybody is worried."
The power authority has been hoping for heavy and sustained rains to replenish the lake; but in recent years rainfall in Ghana has become less common and less reliable, says Phillip Gyau-Boakye, a hydrologist who has been tracking rainfall patterns and river flows in Ghana for 25 years. Rainfall used to be uniformly distributed throughout the rainy season, he says, but now it comes in short spells. All the data points to a Volta River basin that’s getting hotter and drier.
"Everywhere we’ve plotted the temperatures we’ve seen a one degree centigrade rise in temperature, " he says. That has led to increased evaporation which, combined with declining rainfall, has reduced river flows.
"If we piece all this together," he says, "it’s not a good picture for the Volta Lake."
The changes in climate that have affected Lake Volta are consistent with global warming, Gyau-Boakye says.
To prevent drawing down the lake to disastrously low levels, Ghana’s power authority has cut back on electricity production. That has caused rolling blackouts – twelve hours without power every second day – that have triggered a ripple effect across the country's fledgling industrial sector. Mines are scaling back production and Ghana's largest aluminium smelter has shut down.
The power outages are hurting business, says Veronica Mensah, who sells palm oil, tomatoes, and fish from a wooden shack by the roadside.
"[The power] will be going on-off, on-off, and by the time you realize [the produce] has gone bad, " she says." It’s disturbing us a lot."
Many businesses and homeowners are turning to diesel and petroleum-burning generators to fill the gap. Some firms are even building their own power plants. The country’s largest aluminium smelter, VALCO, which was forced to shut down last month due to the power shortage, is planning a 500 mega-watt coal-powered plant.
"[Coal] is dirty, but it’s dirty and cheap," says VALCO chief executive Charles Mensah.
VALCO isn’t the only one turning to thermal power to shore up its electricity stocks. Authorities are scrambling to import oil and diesel to fire emergency power plants.
While Western countries talk about decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, Ghana is heading in the other direction. The country is moving away from clean, but increasingly unreliable hydropower to burning anything it can to keep on the lights.
Environmentalists point out that the move will produce more carbon dioxide, and may therefore contribute to the very climate changes that are causing the energy shortage in the first place.
"This country used to be a net carbon sink," laments Stewart Gold, director of Stop Killing Us Dot Org, a Ghana-based group that promotes awareness of climate change. "It’s sad to think it isn’t anymore."
Gold says developing countries such as Ghana are investing in old energy technologies when they should be planning for the future.
"[Developing countries] should be looking to see where technology is going, and aim for that point, rather than trying to play catch up all the time, which is generally what is happening in third world countries in Africa," he states.
Ghana should leapfrog wealthy countries and invest in renewable energy to fill the gap, says Gold. But that takes money and time – two things that are in desperately short supply in Ghana.
In the meantime, engineers back at the Akosombo dam are struggling to keep the turbines spinning as they watch the water level in Lake Volta drop. For now, officials with the power authority say they have no choice but to look for alternatives. They can’t make it rain… so, they say, they have to buy oil.