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This year marks the 50th birthday of Ghana’s Akosombo Dam: a 110-metres high mega-structure holding back Earth’s largest man-made water body, covering approximately 8,500km2. The Akosombo and the smaller Kpong Generating Station are significant contributors to Ghana’s hydro-electric industry, which provided 67% of Ghana’s total energy production in 2012. However, as of 2010, Ghana’s electrification rate stood at 72%, with rural access around 50%.

The Ghanaian Ministry of Energy is targeting universal access by 2020, primarily to assist the development of rural communities and livelihoods. Such an ambitious aim has demanded immediate action. In September 2014, Ghana’s Minister of Energy and Petroleum signed a deal with China’s Shenzhen Energy to secure a new coal-fired power plant by 2018, effectively adding the generation capacity of another Akosombo to the national grid.

Thus, Ghanaian energy production appears to be divorcing the renewable methods which have provided the nation’s backbone for half a century. Such opposition to the global strive for cleaner energy is inherently paradoxical; why substitute a renewable strategy for one based upon a finite resource with a highly uncertain future? However, this transition is directly contingent upon a range of climatic and socio-economic stresses currently impairing Ghana’s traditional renewable strategy.

Construction of the major Ghanaian hydro-electric plants occurred prior to the abrupt climatic shifts across western Africa during the 1970’s. Annual precipitation levels have since declined by up to 20% across western Africa, vastly reducing stream-flows into the Akosombo region via the cross-boundary White Volta, Black Volta and Oti Rivers. Through heightened potential evapotranspiration levels, the regionally observed ~1°C increase in annual average temperatures since 1945 have further declined water availability for hydro-electric production.

The socio-economic pressures primarily derive from the booming Ghanaian energy demand. Extensive urbanisation across the bustling cities of Accra, Kumasi and Sekondi-Takoradi, a tripled national population and the mechanisation of agriculture have contributed to a four-fold increase in energy consumption since 1970. Sustained contemporary population growth rates will double the 25,000,000 population of today by 2060. Does understanding this double-edged sword of physical and social stresses justify the Ghanaian authorities jumping at the opportunity to rapidly increase energy production levels and facilitate socio-economic development, albeit based upon a finite South African resource?

This question explicates the complexities associated with securing social and environmental sustainability whilst working towards socio-economic development. Immediately, Ghana’s heightened reliance upon fossil fuels will further stress water resources, through power plant cooling and waste disposal demands. A self-reinforcing feedback loop establishes, continually declining hydro-electric production potentials and driving the dependence upon fossil fuels.

The dilemmas and trade-offs facing Ghanaian energy security synthesise the issues facing inter-linked human-natural environments across the globe. Who would have envisaged at the opening of the Akosombo Dam that Ghanaian hydro-electricity production would become threatened within 50 years? Worryingly, predicted climate change and socio-economic developments across the region promise to amplify the contemporary issues; creating a situation where without appropriate management and adaptation neither finite nor renewable methods will keep the lights on.

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