The Volta River Authority’s Dam Project

The Volta River made a splash in the national media last month when the Volta River Authority was forced to spill the dam for the first time in 20 years due to unusually high rainfall. (See GhanaWeb article for more information) Unaccustomed to releasing water from the lake, the Volta River Authority seemed surprised at the resulting floods that displaced farmers and villagers living and working along the banks of the river. Confident that there wouldn’t be problems downstream there was no attempt to evacuate residents before the spill gates were opened. Now that the flooding has subsided the Volta is in the news again. Due to the increase of water downstream there has been a Malaria epidemic and medical officers are scrambling to treat the influx of patients in medical centers surrounding the river.

Akosombo Dam’s heightened media exposure has led me to look more closely at the many films made on the planning, building and completing of the Volta River Project [A River Creates an Industry (1955?); Volta River Exhibition (1956); The Volta River Project (1963 or 65?); Progress at Akosombo (1965); Volta Dam and After (1965); The Great Lake (1966); Volta Lake (?); Volta River (?); and Sharing the Volta Dream (1983)]. Last summer I became particularly intrigued with the film, A River Creates an Industry made by the Gold Coast Film Unit most likely in 1955 (based on edge code dates). This film was made to create public support for the British proposal to build a very costly dam on the Volta River initially conceived as a potential power supply for the processing of 200 million tons of high-grade Ghanaian bauxite into aluminum.

The plans for building a dam on the Volta were in the works as early as 1915 when A.E. Kitson, Former Director of Geological Surveys in the Gold Coast, made a formal proposal to the government. However war interfered with those plans until 1949 when the Gold Coast hired British consulting engineers, Sir William Halcrow & Partners, to advise the government on the development of the Volta River Basin. They produced their report in 1951 at which time Aluminum Limited of Canada, and the British Aluminum Company assessed whether they would like to be involved. Negotiations between the British aluminum companies and the Gold Coast government went back and forth and eventually fell through. After Ghana’s independence, Nkrumah, determined to see the Volta River Project realized, took the plans to the United States where eventually the Henry J. Kaiser Company became involved.

Nkrumah spent a good deal of energy coming up with the funds to see the Volta River Project completed. Films like A River Creates an Industry, Volta River Exhibition and The Volta River Project were essential in raising public support for such a costly national infrastructural project.

What is unusual about the film A River Creates an Industry is the unabashed appropriation of a large portion of a Canadian industrial picture on the Saguenay River hydroelectric scheme into the Gold Coast documentary. A River Creates an Industry isn’t a collage film so much as two films sandwiched together. The entire first half of the film is the Canadian picture produced by Crawbery Films for Aluminum Limited of Canada—the same company that flirted with becoming involved with the Volta River Project after reading the 1951 report. After about 10 minutes of the Canadian film there is an abrupt cut, followed by inner-titles that read, “You have seen what the Saguenay River has done for Canada. But all big rivers are much alike, and year after year their waters flow swiftly down to the sea. We have such a river here in the Gold Coast—The Volta River.”

All big rivers are not alike, but I argue that by drawing physical similarities between the rivers the film explains to the Gold Coast viewers that industrialization can be achieved in Africa in the same way it has been accomplished in Canada. The relationship evokes the discourse of modernization that was prevalent at the time, particularly when discussing large infrastructural projects like dam building, where science, technology and development projects were touted as the way to make Africa equal to British and western super powers.

The Akosombo dam was officially finished in January 1966. The resulting Volta Lake became the largest man-made lake at the time covering 3,275 square miles and displacing approximately 80,000 persons (not including those persons who have recently been displaced due to the recent lake spillage). As part of the dam project the Volta River Authority was tasked with resettling those 80,000 persons into newly built towns. The film The Volta River Project describes the many solutions taken by the Volta River Authority to what the film calls the “human problem.” (A transcription of The Volta River Project can be downloaded here.)

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This work is licensed under Creative Commons.


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