"Volta: Man’s Greatest Lake"
11 May, 1970
Volta: Man’s Greatest Lake.
By James Moxon.
New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.
Pp. 236., $7.50
This account of the planning,
construction, and early operations of the Volta River Project in Ghana
concentrates almost on the engineering aspects of the project and deals
with these in a quite uncritical spirit. The story is handled as a
straight public relations job, which is hardly surprising, since the
author was Ghana’s Director of Public Information during the whole
period. He assumes without question that the project was worth-while and
gives little firm information on the ecological aspects of the project.
He is aware of some of these, but assumes that they can be judged only
in the late 1970s, when the lake has reached "settled characteristics".
Thus, while the lake's costs for electricity could be estimated in
hundredths of cents, years before construction began, but the profound
effects of the lake on human health (especially through waterborne
diseases) cannot be guessed when the dam is already full and power
flowing for the third year. Fishing above the dam has improved, but the
ecological effects on health, transportation, climate, soil fertility,
etc., otherwise remain unknown to Moxon. He does concede that the
sociological effects of resettling 80,000 persons displaced by the
rising waters have been adverse, but implies that this is only a
As an engineering story the Volta Lake has little special interest,
except that the Italian construction firm finished on time at a cost
considerably under estimates. The only real excitement in the story came
from the need to meet the arbitrary deadline of September 1965 set by
the bankers for the first flow of electricity.
Even from the engineering and financial aspects covered by this
volume, the Volta project raises more questions than it answers. There
was little local demand for electricity in the quantity planned, so a
market for the power was created, by including an aluminum smelter in
the project. The justification for this was the large local deposits of
bauxite, but access to these required such an expensive transportation
system that it was eliminated from the project (with other local
benefits) in the final plans, and the smelter was built to operate on
imported alumina for the foreseeable future (p. 97). The lack of a local market
for electricity gave the aluminium consortium such influence over the
project that it could get a long-term contract to buy power at 0.2625
cents per kwh. This was probably below costs for the current. The power
not sold to the smelter was, of course, available for domestic
consumption: the loophole in this appeared during the gala banquet
celebrating the beginning of operations, when the power blacked out and
President Nkrumah’s bodyguards leaped to his defence in the flickering
light of Edgar Kaiser’s cigarette lighter. By that date Ghana was so
strapped for funds and its credit so low that it was very difficult to
embark on the almost total reconstruction of the local grid made
necessary by the new full wattage current. For the same reason it was
necessary to abandon almost completely the irrigation aspects of this
"multi-purpose" Volta Project.
Moxon’s account is quite uncritical, even from his restricted point
of view. He mentions without any question of conflict of interests that
the Kaiser enterprises were, during the final negotiations, both expert
advisers to the Ghana government and chief member of the aluminum
consortium seeking contracts. When the Ghana government wanted to hold
10 per cent of the equity capital in the project, the consortium
objected, and finally accepted only as part of a general agreement which
would prevent Ghanaian private citizens from even obtaining more than 20
percent ownership (including the government’s 10 per cent). Moxon calls
this deal (page 68) evidence that the consortium “would play ball if the
Gold Coast Government would also play ball.”
The bibliography is similarly uncritical, consisting chiefly of
reports by those engaged in the project, while the index is almost
worthless, omitting such significant words as “Moxon” and “costs”.
School of Foreign Service