By Orla Ryan
ACCRA, Sept 26 (Reuters) - A $620-million dam in Ghana will force hundreds of hippos to leave their habitat on the Black Volta river and move upstream where they will come into conflict with farmers and may starve, conservationists warn.
China’s Sino Hydro Corporation has just begun work on the 5-year hydroelectric dam project in Ghana’s northwest. One-fifth of Bui National Park will be flooded to create a vast reservoir.
Conservationists fear the Bui hippos, the largest of two hippo communities in Ghana, who graze on the river banks will not be able to find enough food once the flooding starts and they are forced to move.
Hippopotamus numbers have dwindled in West Africa. Now only 7,000 are left compared with 150,000 in east and south Africa.
"A hippo weighs a couple of tonnes. The idea that there will be enough forage for that many animals is ridiculous," said British biologist Daniel Bennett, who worked in Ghana between 1994 and 2001. Hippos could move out of the park and end up in conflict with farmers, he added.
"I think we are looking at huge conflicts between people and hundreds of hungry hippos who descend on the farmlands."
Bennett does not oppose the dam but believes more should be done to help the hippos and other wildlife. He had his work permit withdrawn in 2001 when he was told his work was no longer in the national interest.
Officials in Ghana say the hippos will find food elsewhere in the park. "The environment along the Black Volta is conducive to their survival," said Cletus Nateg at the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission.
Bui’s environmental assessors acknowledge the hippos may be vulnerable to hunters as they look for a new home.
Their report says grass and vegetation will grow along the shore of the lake and provide suitable fodder. Bennett says that process would take several years, if it happens at all.
Some activists question not only the environmental impact of the dam at Bui but the wisdom of a dam on a river said to be highly seasonal.
Already Ghana relies on hydro power for about 60 percent of its electricity. Poor rainfall led to severe power cuts in the past year and, at their peak, many people suffered a 12-hour power cut every second day.
Many Ghanaians welcome the Bui development, which has been on the drawing board since the 1920s. It is being funded by concessionary loans from China, secured by sales of Ghanaian cocoa to the Asian giant.
"It will provide Ghana with 400 megawatts of power. When the lake is created, it will be a large fishing area, it will also be used for tourism, there will be yachting and boating," said Yaw Opong, chair of the government’s Bui Development Committee.
While 2,000 people will be displaced by the dam, most will be rehoused in better accommodation. A new industrial city, Bui City, will spring up nearby and, once the loans are repaid, the cost of running the dam will be minimal, he added.
But activists remain sceptical. "It looks like hydro is the cheapest, but if you take environmental and social costs into the balance sheet, hydro costs," said Richard Twum of the Volta Basin Development Foundation.